Prioritizing Partnerships and Embracing Change: Lessons from the Denver Afterschool Alliance

Guest blog by Priscilla M. Little, Senior Consultant, The Forum for Youth Investment

Expanded learning systems are a promising strategy for improving access to quality afterschool and summer learning experiences. Replacing a patchwork of fragmented service providers with a cohesive team that includes public agencies, service providers, businesses, funders, and schools, expanded learning systems help students feel more connected to school, build confidence in their abilities as learners, make connections with caring adults, and give families a much-needed entry point for finding quality afterschool and summer learning opportunities (Messages Made Simple Communications Toolkit, Every Hour Counts).

Central to the effective functioning of an expanded learning system is an intermediary that performs the glue-functions necessary to galvanize partners around a common vision, collect and use data for continuous improvement, and coordinate and maximize resources. I know this from research, but I also know this from experience managing The Wallace Foundation’s Next Generation Afterschool System Building Initiative for five years, working closely with the Denver Afterschool Alliance (DAA) and eight other intermediaries across the country.

There is a now a key set of expanded learning intermediaries, many of whom are Every Hour Counts members, that are paving the way for new intermediaries across the country. A core Every Hour Counts partner, the Denver Afterschool Alliance, is one such intermediary that has a great story to tell, having grown to become a national model for multi-sector partnerships, proponents of quality in action, and robust evaluation of targeted programs.

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What was its journey from a loosely knit collaborative to a robust expanded learning intermediary and what were key successes and lessons learned along the way? To answer these questions DAA asked me to dig into its roots and iterations to identify the core essentials of its approach to system building. “Reflecting on how far we’ve come since the mid-1990’s when our systems-building work was just getting started, has been so useful. Being able to better understand how we used every start and stop as a way to continue moving this work forward has been inspirational and has added another layer of credibility to our work. These lessons, featured in Prioritizing Partnerships and Embracing Change, The Growth and Development of the Denver Afterschool Alliance, have helped us describe our journey to new leadership both within the City and school district, as well as in building new partnerships with funders,” said Maxine Quintana, Co-founder of the Denver Afterschool Alliance.

Five Ingredients for Keeping Your Intermediary Strong

DAA crafted an art to prioritizing partnerships and embracing change that has five ingredients any system can operationalize.

1. Believe in the power of authentic partnerships. It sounds so simple, but partnerships are a key ingredient to success. Be intentional about who is on your team and how to represent your provider community so you have the right set of partners able to engage in the work. Create authentic partnerships by meeting providers where they are and offering multiple entry points for partnership, from being on the mailing list, to attending meetings, to being on the board itself. Be transparent so everyone is clear about roles, responsibilities, and contributions.

The Denver Afterschool Alliance’s case study shares how Denver is strengthening its afterschool and summer learning system.

A few tips on partnerships:

· There is a difference between getting the right organizational partner and the right human partner — think carefully about who from an organization will be the best fit for the partnership.

· Don’t ask partners to do anything you wouldn’t do.

· Form partnerships at all levels of your system. Cultivating mid-level manager buy-in is essential because when high-level managers inevitably change positions, the mid-level managers keep the work going.

2. Be clear about roles, responsibilities, and expectations. No two partners enter a room with the same definition of “partnership.” Early on in a collaboration you need to come to consensus on what it means to be a partner in whatever the initiative might be. Ask yourselves:

· What is mutually beneficial to all partners?

· What are the checks and balances that need to be in place in a partnership so that everyone’s needs are being met or at least surfaced?

· What does it mean to collaborate?

· Does it mean shared decision-making and if so, decision-making about what? How are these decisions made and by which partners?

Partnership agreements or memorandum of understanding are useful ways to formalize expectations and ensure that as leadership changes and new people enter into the collaborative, they understand the commitments of their organizations have made with regard to being a “partner.”

3. Stay true to your mission. Establishing a clear mission and vision is empowering for any organization. It provides the fundamental guidance and reference point to inform decision-making and approaches to improvement and growth. With a clearly articulated mission and vision, DAA recognized that it needed to start small and grow incrementally, building a core network of supporters who could champion the work as it progressed. Essential to a growth-oriented model is an openness to risk false starts and make course corrections to find the approach that works best. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

4. But…be willing to embrace change as an opportunity. Over the course of its 8-year history, DAA experienced multiple leadership transitions and leadership changes among its other partners — -and it survived! Leadership transitions can knock initiatives off course, but as in the case of DAA, they can also be windows of opportunity to take stock of the work, assess partnerships and priorities, and embrace changes that will keep the work strong.

When faced with change, ask yourself, “How can I turn this into an opportunity to engage with new partners? To seek different funding sources? To reach new children and youth?” Turn changes to your advantage.

5. Don’t think you are finished evolving, intermediary structures are not “one and done.” A sign of a healthy initiative is to continually assess what it is trying to do and how it is organized and then consider whether or not it is setting itself up for success in the current context of the work and the leaders in the community. Where you incubate may not be where you land in five years. Who is on your inaugural board may not be who you need for the long-haul. And your first governance structure is probably not your last.

Partnerships and governance structures can and should evolve over time in order to best meet the needs of the work and its specific context. For example, DAA took advantage of the departure of its director to reevaluate its organizational structure and shift away from the single director and single chair model that was not working well enough at that time, to a co-chair model and shared leadership structure.

At the end of the day all this practical advice boils down to the mantra of DAA, “keep providers at the center of everything you do and every decision you make, so they can do what they do best and focus on the youth they serve.”

For more about DAA and its evolution, see the case study, Prioritizing Partnerships and Embracing Change, The Growth and Development of the Denver Afterschool Alliance.

This article was written by Priscilla M. Little, a senior consultant with The Forum for Youth Investment. Prior to joining the Forum, she was Initiative Manager for The Wallace Foundation’s Next Generation Afterschool System Building Initiative, where she worked closely with nine cities that were working to build and sustain robust afterschool and summer learning systems.

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