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How to Sustain Partnerships

Creating partnerships takes time and work, but so does sustaining the relationship. “It takes really being focused on what we want to see as the outcome, but it really is about that relationship piece, which is a core value that I have,” said Gates-Cortez. That, she said, means recognizing that your organization doesn’t have all the answers. “It’s really about putting things into place, taking a look at what is working, what’s not working and [whether] we need to toss it or we just need to tweak it a little bit—but just doing whatever it takes to keep pushing that dream forward.” A long-running partnership can only work if an organization learns to rely on its collaborators—that’s what can turn a partnership on paper into one that truly cements lasting change. In Seattle, those relationships have changed and improved over time. “I think what’s new now is we are focused,” said Brent Jones of Seattle Public Schools. "We have a strong working relationship. I think we are on the same page about what needs to be done.”

Educational Programs Coordinator Cara Ianni at KCHA said communication is paramount to building trust. Green, of Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, concurred. There she and her colleagues encountered a classic challenge for education and housing sectors: the differing definitions of homelessness presented by HUD and the Department of Education. Through “open communication and transparency,” as well as the understanding that all partners are coming to their work with good intentions, they have been able to “tackle those hurdles.” KCHA has had success with being intentional about bringing its partners together, in the same room, as well as making concessions to hold meetings at times and in locations that will accommodate schedules. “It sounds like common sense but often times it doesn’t happen,” Green said. Once the trust is established, the partners ascertain each other’s strengths and the best way to handle future efforts. Jenn Ramirez Robson of KCHA has seen the impact this kind of relationship-building has had: Now it’s not just KCHA staff and school district staff that are jointly planning, but because the housing authority has done good work, more potential partners are reaching out. In her work with KCHA, Ianni has seen the work become about “planning together, helping to collectively solve each other’s problems and challenges.” Another KCHA employee, Youth Programs Coordinator Ken Nsimbi, who does more work on the ground, said partners like after-school providers tell him they are pleasantly surprised at how involved the housing authority is. KCHA’s other partners agree. Hendrickson said KCHA’s “ability to connect to resources has been huge,” noting that KCHA has access to resources that the district doesn’t necessarily have access to.

  • If a promising practice comes up, we can elevate it in a way that can impact more than just the one school, and for me I’m a systems thinker; how do we elevate, promote, and inspire folks to go in a direction that will help more than just who is right in front of you?

    James Bush
    James Bush

    Director of School and Community Partnerships
    Seattle Public Schools

  • I think it’s about being really nimble and flexible and being able to say, ‘you know what, this isn’t working, so stop and figure out how to work better.’

    Kisa Hendrickson
    Kisa Hendrickson

    Chief Engagement and Partnership Officer
    Highline Public Schools

  • It gave us a professional educator from that world who knew that world intimately, spoke their language, had their trust, and I think the relationship blossomed during that period.

    Michael Mirra
    Michael Mirra

    Executive Director
    Tacoma Housing Authority

Just as Langford described how data was important for confirming accomplishments, Cherrington said following through with commitments is critical to the success of a partnership: “Clearly define the commitment that that entity is willing to make for that effort. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it… And that dedication and that openness to the possibilities and being willing to make changes is—I cannot emphasize enough how important that is in actually coming up with solutions, and then ultimately acting on those ideas for resolutions and better outcomes for kids,” she said. “So they—whoever it is around the country—they need to be willing to not only just show up at the table, because we have people who show up at the table and just sit there, and that’s not going to cause a solution, that’s not going to bring up a solution. They have to come with the mind shift that is that shared responsibility.”

Striking a partnership with another major institution in your city can undergird an effective collaboration, but it’s not enough. Langford explains that achieving systemic impact requires sustainable relationships at every level from front-line service providers to executive directors. She described how, under the umbrella of a partnership between her housing authority and the local library system, they maintain relationships with librarians to get information shared with the community, while also working at a different level to have unit inspectors bring books for families with them, to working with the local government entity to take pilot programs and scale them.

Institutionalize it!

Once communities have done the difficult work to create a partnership and initiatives to achieve change, it is critical they make sure their joint work is durable enough to survive staff changes and the passage of time. “People are going to come and go… it’s really important to get executive buy-in and understanding that whoever replaces [current staff] at some point down the line, that same dedication is there, so that they can just kind of slip into the work that is already existing inside the collaborative,” said Cherrington, who works with KCHA.

In Vancouver, Topper said she and VHA and Evergreen Public Schools have also confronted the question of sustainability beyond the tenures of individual staff. “How do you know you’ve really got it? It’s when it happens even if you’re gone tomorrow,” she said. It means having “those understandings, those agreements, having things in writing, having policies in place, procedures that other people can just step in and pick up the work…. So you make it such a big part of your work that without it you would feel lost. That’s how you institutionalize it.” Green said she thinks Vancouver has already achieved this: “Our housing and education programs don’t hinge on one or two people being in place. I know that if Jan [Wichert] leaves from the VHA, someone will fill in that role.”

As part of sustaining foundations that are built, leaders recognize they need to do more to familiarize new staff with the partnerships—to really focus on institutionalization. One way to aid that, said Gates-Cortez, would be hosting more robust orientations for new staff. “What’s the roles, what’s their responsibility, how do they overlap with each other, who needs to communicate with each other? So as it gets larger, asking that question, ‘who else needs to know about this?’” she said. Inserting these partnerships into the DNA of their component organizations not only helps with institutional knowledge and longevity, but also to drive current efforts within an organization. Seattle Public Schools has worked to move from having one-to-one relationships with partners to getting more holistic involvement from the entire staff. James Bush, director of school and community partnerships at SPS, said, “Building those systems, building those connections, and getting beyond that one-to-one personal relationship to an institutional relationship, and I think we absolutely have an institutional relationship, an institutional partnership, that is going to be able to withstand changes in leadership at either organization if people will be able to pick up the book and know kind of how we did it and what were the elements that were key to our success.”

Strategic Planning and Strategic Inclusion

The strategic planning necessary to run a successful partnership, and the on-the-ground outreach required to make sure it helps the people it is meant to, go hand in hand. “One of the first things that we’re going to do is focus groups with our residents, and understand what their needs are, and how we can better meet them, and I see this as really integral to the success of the education programming,” said Langford. “Because again, I’m looking to work at the systems level and find, beyond the mail, the best way that we can intentionally engage with the folks that we’re serving.” This is where the access to residents a housing entity has can really contribute to a partnership. From a school perspective, a partnership “enables us to build relationships with our families, because leaders in the housing sites speak the language, and come from the same culture and community,” said Hendrickson of Highline Public Schools.  “If those leaders are connected to the school and to the school district, they’re able to go out into the housing communities and bring other families to the table and give them information.” Hendrickson said the number of possible interactions and interventions has increased beyond what school officials previously thought possible, which resulted in more opportunities to improve outcomes of vulnerable students. “More importantly,” Hendrickson observed, “I think it’s brought that family-community voice to the table, that I think isn’t always there.”

Thinking about what systems need to consider for children to be successful, Janet Gates-Cortez cited a concept she calls “second backpacks”—something that students bring to school that isn’t really visible or heard: “We need to know that anything that kids bring with them to school we need to be able to work with, in terms of knowing who they are, what their strengths are, what their interests are, and how do we reach them so that they’re fully becoming engaged in school?” Doing that means ensuring that parents or guardians are working with the students, too. Accomplishing that means recognizing that partnerships don’t have every answer, that families can fill in the blanks.  It’s about “recognizing parents for the knowledge that they have about their children, and ideas about what works, and resources that they can bring in that partnership,” Gates-Cortez said. “A partnership is really about having equity in that relationship, and having that shared purpose that’s clear.” One way housing-education partnerships accomplish this is by bringing education to where families live, such as having after-school programs on-site, thus reducing barriers to participation (such as transportation issues).

From there, building a robust strategic plan can be a complicated undertaking made of various strata of interlocking goals. “Because this is a systems-level partnership, and because we’re looking at the whole spectrum of ages, and we’re looking at all of our students, one challenge is getting to clarity around our short, medium, and long-term goals for each of those subgroups,” Courtney Cameron, then of Seattle Housing Authority, said. But even getting to the point of setting different goals at different levels of the partnership took months, she noted. First her partnership had to take the time to “know who our students are, where they live, how they’re doing, what they want and desire, how we can support them, and then how we track progress.”

Partnerships not only present an opportunity to improve student outcomes, but to assist families and tighten the fabric of communities. To do that, prioritizing their involvement in the decisionmaking process is important. “If we’re really going to change outcomes for marginalized communities than we need to embed them in the processes that we’re using, whether that be funding, or whether that be policy work, or whether that be just decisions on what’s actually happening,” said Gulbranson of Puget Sound Educational Services District. “That really is key to doing business as unusual, and doing it with that race equity lens, and doing it with that anti-racist lens.”

But for all aspects of the work, Cherrington believes it is critical to plan with the community and ensure they stay involved and are kept in the loop. “We have to make sure that we have multiple voices at the table, that we are including—in the solution-making—all of the different communities in the community, cultural communities, diverse voices that are coming in, and then more broadly communicating back out to invite more people in—but also to communicate how we’re doing towards the work we said we’re going to do.”

Ted Dezember
Senior Resident Services Manager for Educational Initiatives
King County Housing Authority

Cross-Sector Hiring and Trainings

As these partnerships have matured, it has made sense for organizations to hire dedicated staff to ensure their benefits can be fully realized. Seattle, for example, “took a capacity-building approach, which is different than some other housing authorities in other parts of the country,” said Cameron. That meant hiring someone to remain in contact with the school system on a daily basis. In this case, it made sense to hire Cameron, who formerly worked for the school district. She and her counterpart at SPS “help each other with the language across both systems, with understanding the bureaucracies, and understanding where the opportunities exist to deepen our partnership.” Advantages of that include the ability to quickly pursue grant opportunities, assemble cross-systems teams and focus groups, and more. Another area where KCHA has prioritized hiring dedicated staff is data.

Sometimes, one partner will hire an employee from another, which can help tighten bonds between the organizations and ensure their internal knowledge is complementary. Mirra, for example, hired a Tacoma Public Schools assistant superintendent “who was very excited about the discussion we wanted to have” as the first manager of the housing authorities’ education project. “It gave us a professional educator from that world who knew that world intimately, spoke their language, had their trust, and I think the relationship blossomed during that period.”

In Seattle, those cross-trainings and cross-hires have really paid dividends. “The great part about it is, we’ve actually swapped staff. Some staff are working for Seattle Housing Authority, then a year later they’re working for Seattle Public Schools, so we know each other’s systems, and we already have existing relationships that we leverage,” Jones of SPS said. “So there’s daily meetings, there’s weekly meetings, it’s becoming very structured and we have a rhythm of business together.”

That’s not the only way to share knowledge across systems. James Bush’s team at SPS works with more than 300 partners and tries to provide them with professional development opportunities so that they are aligned with the District’s strategic initiatives and to help establish continuity between students’ in-classroom experiences and out-of-classroom activities. It’s important, he said, that “whatever program they’re doing, if it’s robotics class, that they know what pillar of our organization that they’re working on. That’s systematizing a lot of the work that we do.” Importantly, SHA staff has participated in on-site trainings at Seattle school facilities, and Portland’s housing authority has also held cross-trainings. In the last year, SHA and SPS have held programs and done presentations for counselors/family support workers at 22 schools, SPS McKinney-Vento liaisons, and SHA departments/staff. SHA has also improved staff skills and shared understanding of key issues affecting SHA students through joint participation in approximately 10 professional development sessions on topics like supporting English Language Learners, cultural responsiveness, undoing institutionalized racism, and trauma-informed practice.  

Another way to deepen cross-sector collaboration is to involve partners in the hiring process. In Tacoma, for example, Gates-Cortez said she was looped into the hiring process for a liaison position at the housing authority that would have some involvement with the education partnership, as well as other positions. It has been helpful, she said, “just being able to have input as far as taking a look at who would be a good fit with being able to work with principals, or work with teachers, and then on the THA side taking a look at someone who would be a good fit in understanding housing systems, and processes, and approaches, and guidelines, and then together, being able to have that match and move forward, and having that time built-in.”

Strong Leaders

While partnerships are all about collective effort, they often require strong leadership to get off the ground and remain aloft. Hendrickson said that leaders in her region “aren’t afraid to be bold and try things that aren’t really the traditional way of doing things, but that achieve the results that we’re looking for.” Vancouver also had strong champions for the work. “These housing programs have complete support from our district administration,” said Green of Evergreen Public Schools.  “Our superintendent has been on board since the very beginning and just wanting to see this happen because he knows the challenges our families and kids face and he sees this as a way to support those goals in a different way than what was previously possible.”

In places that have less strong leadership, Hendrickson advised that professionals like directors or principals who want to ignite a collaboration to “just do it. Especially at the director level, or the executive director, or chief level, it’s really easy to just sit around and talk about doing it, but to just go out and not be afraid to make mistakes, and not be afraid to evaluate ourselves and then reset where we need to.”

Collective Impact

A partnership is designed to get more out of its constituent parts than they would on their own. But how do partnerships know they’re achieving their full potential? In King County, the partnerships strive for five elements for “collective impact,” said Cherrington of Eastside Pathways. They include abiding by a common agenda; centering work around data; reinforcing activities; community outreach and communication; and maintaining a “backbone entity” that “helps convene, facilitate, guide the strategy of the partnership.” Cherrington said that the difference between collaboration and partnership and Collective Impact is usually—with collaboration and partnering—“it’s usually around a project or a program. The idea behind Collective Impact is we’re driving toward systemic change.”