Partnerships During COVID-19

May 22, 2020

Community-campus partnerships are the cornerstone of our work at Iowa & Minnesota Campus Compact. They are critical to the community impacts, research, and student learning outcomes we seek to create and support. Creating strong, sustainable partnerships is always a challenge, and it’s been made even more difficult during this pandemic. It’s also never been more important. Early in May, we hosted a national virtual discussion to generate ideas and solutions for strong partnerships in our current context. Thank you to those who joined and contributed to this blog.

The discussion centered on the findings of our 2018 report “Perceptions of Partnership: A study on nonprofit and higher education collaboration.” We examined what living out those findings means in this moment and how we can leverage the opportunities it presents to make partnerships even stronger.

Recommendation 1: Focus on quality over quantity

This recommendation is perhaps the most important as we all face limited time and resources going into the fall. Targeting efforts toward a specific group of organizations is key, but that doesn’t mean just sticking with the low-hanging fruit. Often the first organizations to respond to surveys and offers of support are those with the most capacity and resources. Small, community-based organizations, often led by people of color, are less likely to have the capacity and resources to respond. Take more time to think about who needs support the most and then take the time to find out (ask?) what they need, on their terms and their timeline. This will also require flexibility and sticking with partners even when circumstances change or they aren’t able to be responsive. Additionally, even if we don’t know specifics, we know that the next academic year will be different than last year’s. That means it’s a good idea to scale back and simplify anything you can from events to projects to courses.

Recommendation 2: Move from reciprocity to co-creation

A key finding from the study was that evenly distributed reciprocity (an even and mutual exchange of benefits) may not always be the goal. Instead, many community organizations are looking for the opportunity to co-create projects and programs and determine together how resources will be distributed. This moment presents a unique opportunity to help members of our campus communities put this into practice by starting with community needs and designing together around those. Those needs are undergoing significant change that creates new and different opportunities to reshape communities together. This may mean reversing some processes. For example, you could try first  circulating a list of community-responsive project ideas and inviting faculty and students to think creatively about how courses and projects can align to those needs. 

Recommendation 3: Establish and sustain organizational infrastructure

While it may seem like direct services are where the most need is right now, in many ways organizational capacity is taking an even bigger hit. Nonprofits are hampered in their ability to raise funds and focus on the infrastructure that keeps their organizations strong. This may mean a lack of capacity to manage volunteers. Campuses can support that capacity directly by taking on more of the coordination role on their behalf. This means it’s even more important for colleges and universities to continue to support the infrastructure on their side like centers, offices, and positions for community engagement that make this support possible. This is also a time when more structure may be helpful. This could include written partnership agreements, more formal project plans, written safety policies, and addressing issues related to risk and liability management.

Recommendation 4: Strengthen student preparation and accountability

This may be the biggest area for change and opportunity as we head into an unknown future. This moment has made the futility of strict hours requirements ever more clear and is a chance to reimagine how we hold students accountable for their learning and role in partnership. For many, this may mean establishing structures of accountability tied to project and learning outcomes instead. Distance also means that preparing students has new challenges as well as opportunities. At least one campus we spoke with is planning to create orientation videos for students in community-engaged courses that can be used across campus to create a more uniform approach to preparation in ways that may not have been feasible before.

Recommendation 5: Build individual capacity for partnership

Now more than ever the faculty, staff, and students who engage in day-to-day partnership activities need to be prepared and supported in their role. It is also true that people who hadn’t previously engaged in partnerships may have a new interest and sense of urgency in meeting community needs. This is a wonderful opportunity to bring more partners into the process and help deepen their understanding of what strong partnerships entail. Some of the above suggestions around creating video orientations and training can support this. More structure is also helpful, especially around communication. When we are stressed, it’s easy to forget to reach out and see how things are going. Build this into any plan for community-engaged projects and programs. This is also a great time to help everyone see that partnership does not always mean direct action. What organizations and people may need from us right now is advocacy, listening, or other skills that don’t come as easily. 

Recommendation 6: Explore other forms of partnership

Finally, now is the time for immense creativity when it comes to figuring out what the world needs from us and what we have to offer. Colleges and universities have always been an important place for research, dialogue, and other less direct forms of engagement that we need now more than ever. Partnerships may need to happen more within the campus community than outside of it and may not be able to happen with formal organizations. Engagement with activism and politics is so important right now, but looks different from traditional community engagement. As more engagement work moves online, consider partnering with librarians, seasoned online educators, academic technologists, orientation programs, and marketing and communication staff on your campus to make the most out of the digital platforms and resources available to support online engagement, particularly around Election 2020 and the Census. You can also help to give a digital “boost” to local and neighborhood voter and Census engagement initiatives through social media channels, email newsletters, or on your website.

Community partnership has never mattered more. The success of colleges and universities is deeply connected to the success of our communities, nation, and world as a whole. While it will be harder than ever, now is not the time to abandon partnerships. We have to recommit and support communities in new ways.

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