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Collaborative Relationships Between Nonprofits and Educators

November 23, 2012

(Erin Palmer, a writer and editor for University Alliance, writes about nonprofit and public sector topics covered by master of public administration degree programs. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Some of the most stunning inhabitants of the natural world -- the sea anemone, the hummingbird, the orchid -- owe their intricate and variegated beauty, at least in part, to a basic biological process: symbiosis. When human beings and the institutions we shape interact in this manner, we call it "collaboration."

Of course, no living creature exists independent of its environment, and nonprofit organizations are no different. Just as the most beautiful orchids will not bloom without pollination from an outside source, nonprofits must also cultivate collaborative relationships with community leaders, including educators, in order to achieve their full potential.

Getting Started

The first step is recognizing that an educational institution, whether a local K-12, a large research university, or a private liberal arts college, is more than just a place of learning for enrolled students; it is also the locus of a wide variety of community resources.

Perhaps the most valuable of these resources is the students themselves. Regardless of the amount of time they spend sitting in a classroom, learners, whether age 6 or 60, function as whole human beings and not as just repositories of information. Each possesses singular talents, abilities, ambitions, and skills -- all of which can benefit a nonprofit, and vice versa, once a collaborative relationship is formed.

Just as the nonprofit should see the educational institution as an assemblage of valuable resources, so should the educator recognize that a nonprofit is an engine for positive change in the community. Whether socioeconomic equity, environmental stewardship, or the pursuit of human dignity and rights, a nonprofit's primary aim almost always will prove beneficial to the educator's (and students') community.


As in all new relationships, communication is key. Successful collaboration between a nonprofit and an educator hinges on each partner's understanding of the other's dreams. Or, more specifically, their DREAMS: Desires, Resources, Experience, Aims, and Motivations. Each party must offer and share the following information:

  • The primary aim, including specific goals around mobilizing, strengthening, and/or changing the community
  • Prior experience with service/volunteer and educational collaboration, including a clear understanding of the outcomes and impact
  • Reason(s) for the current interest in a collaborative relationship
  • Resources (time, money, materials, etc.) available for the collaboration
  • Past, current, and anticipated methodologies for achieving primary goals
  • Past, current, and anticipated challenges and successes in pursuit of primary goals

As communication between the parties flourishes, a relationship is cultivated. Each party should pay particular attention to areas of overlap with the other's dreams, and together they should determine their common need(s) and goals. A clearly defined and shared public purpose, such as instilling a service ethic in elementary school students or educating college students about the nonprofit's cause, informs every collaborative relationship.

Moving Forward

For educators and nonprofits, a shared purpose can facilitate consensus on operational design and management. Strategic planning should therefore anticipate the needs and resources of the community in which both partners operate --specifically, its people, systems of governance, and key institutions and organizations.

All these elements form the context in which a collaborative relationship is most likely to thrive, as do a strong and ongoing understanding of the socioeconomic, governmental, and cultural trends that shape the community on which the partnership is focused. Both the nonprofit and the educator must remain apprised of changes to and developments within the commmunity in question.


Longevity of any kind -- whether in species, relationships, or people -- depends on adaptation. In a collaborative relationship, the best way to adapt is to pair frequent and open communication with an ongoing reevaluation of the partnership's shared goals and performance.

The more flexible and innovative their methodology, the more likely the educator and the nonprofit are to achieve their goals -- and to remain committed to the relationship itself. Neither the orchid nor its pollinator achieved their collaborative beauty overnight. Patience is the orchid-grower's mantra. That said, today’s gardeners have the knowledge, tools, and resources neeeded to cultivate quite easily what were once considered nature's rarest blooms. They've learned, in fact, that orchids are not only surprisingly tough but marvelously adaptable. Your next collaborative relationship can be, as well.

-- Erin Palmer

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