Building Philanthropy for a Better Florida

ENGAGE Funders' Toolkit

Module 5: District Partnerships

Developing Effective Partnerships

Funders are used to hearing different versions of the meaning of "partnership" from organizations wanting to work with them (aka receive funding). All too often the "partnership" being proposed involves the funder supporting the initiatives or priorities which the applicant brings forward with minimal input from the funder. 

On the other hand, the applicant sees that:

  1. the funder has "a lot" of money; and
  2. they support "education" (in this case).

Therefore, the funder is fair game to "partner." 

Having been on the receiving end of these requests, the most powerful question is often, "So you’re applying to receive x dollars … where is the partnership portion for the foundation?" 

There usually isn’t a ready answer for that question. 

Often the extent of research the applicant has done is to look up the mission and areas of funding for the funder, but there haven't been conversations about the priorities, current and past investments, current goals for the funder or what the funder sees as needs in the areas being discussed. This goes to show that "partnership" may be the most overused and misused relationship regularly proposed to funders. This includes not only nonprofit applicants, but school districts as well. 

What are Partnerships?

Partnerships involve equal partners serving as collaborative thought leaders, working towards a solution to what is acknowledged as a common challenge. Partnerships are built on trust, common interest and mutual respect for what each player brings to the process. They do not develop quickly, nor dissolve quickly under pressure if they are strong partnerships. 

Each partner brings a recognition to the process that they don’t have all the answers but will rely on the perspectives of their other partners in order to strengthen the approach which all partners work on implementing.

The Challenges of District Partnerships

Partnering with school districts is a challenge. They are large, bureaucratic organizations. District personnel are education experts and used to being self-sufficient and finding solutions internally. The district has a primarily internal problem-solving focus with less experience partnering with external entities. 

They have numerous stakeholders in the community and have to tackle the challenge of how to engage each of them; that is, if the district has the personnel capacity to engage externally effectively. They epitomize the thinking that they are the experts with the solutions and just need more resources to make everything better. 

What do Effective District Partnerships Look Like?

Partnering with districts is much like other partnerships, built on the premise that all players are working together on issues they both recognize as needing attention. They help each other think through approaches and solutions. As the case studies which follow in this module demonstrate, the most effective partnerships with their inherent give and take have the greatest impact. 

The Conn Memorial Foundation was one of many community members which recognized that the Sulphur Springs area of Tampa was in immediate need of increased focus and services so no additional generations of students would be lost. There was no finger pointing or blame being laid. Frank and candid conversations could be undertaken because of relationships which had developed between community leadership and district leadership. These conversations led to multiple partnerships among funders, the district and community providers. No one entity came up with the silver bullet solution, and no single entity would be able to develop the resulting services (and results) which the collaborative partnership is yielding. This is not a “district initiative” being funded; it’s a community initiative developed collaboratively.


The Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s STEMsmart initiative was also effective because of a true partnership built on the relationship between the funder and district leadership. The results have been dramatic, but once again would not have happened if it were the district simply “placing orders” for what it needed. Due to the collaborative design, the initiative grew in scope and impact beyond all initial expectations. In fact, by having a true partnership with the funder, the initial investments were significantly multiplied beyond all initial expectations. 


Partnerships, much like other relationships, require constant hard work and mutual respect to be effective. When one partner becomes limited as simply a source of funds or another is the sole thought-leader, then all synergy of the partnership is lost and you are left with a transactional relationship.

Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise


The Sulphur Springs Neighborhood of Promise (SSNOP) is a collaborative effort of residents, educators, service providers, government agencies, business leaders and funding partners who have joined together to implement an educational program in which children thrive academically. The goals are to create a culture that promotes the caring, nurturing and successful education of children and to offer support services for the family and community in positive and productive settings.

The SSNOP community initiative strives to provide a child-focused educational delivery system that is family-friendly and easily accessible within the neighborhood. It began with conversations between funders and the school district about how to maximize impact. 

To accomplish its vision, SSNOP has committed to a cradle to-career educational delivery system. We call it the Insulated Educational Pipeline. The three layers of the pipeline, as shown below, are:

  1. Education
  2. After School and Summer Programs
  3. Community Initiatives

The innermost layer is the educational core of the pipeline, focused on academic programs. The early years of life are critical to building a strong foundation for educational success. Providing academic support and enrichment activities through high school is essential to ensure college or career readiness. Therefore, each segment supports a specific academic stage of a child’s life, i.e., Early Childhood, Middle School, Post-Secondary, etc.

Learn more about this partnership.

 Learn more about how this partnership works at their website.
 If you have questions about how the funding community is involved, email FPN member Sheff Crowder, President of the Conn Memorial Foundation. 

STEMsmart from Gulf Coast Community Foundation

Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s STEMsmart initiative is transforming the way teachers teach and students learn science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, in local secondary schools. While statistics show that many of the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs of tomorrow—and today, for that matter—will require proficiency in the STEM disciplines, our region, state and nation have fallen behind many developing economies in preparing our children for that future.

That’s why Gulf Coast has already invested $2.2 million just halfway through this five-year partnership with the Sarasota and Charlotte county school districts to jump-start student achievement in STEM.

Much more than an academic grant, STEMsmart is a movement designed to spark a new breed of critical thinker and creative problem-solver among students, both inside and beyond the classroom, within and beyond the core STEM subjects. A dedicated website,, helps to extend the initiative to the entire community.

STEMsmart launched in 2010 and is now active in 15 schools. Results so far include improved test scores in the bellwether subject of algebra, installation of 50 new high-tech science and math classrooms in Sarasota County middle schools, groundbreaking technology and training partnerships with global tech company Texas Instruments and reams of accolades for local students in regional and statewide competitions. Investments by the school districts, local and national businesses and individual donors bring the total invested so far to $4 million.

STEMsmart Goals:

  • Accelerate teachers’ readiness to meet Next Generation Sunshine State Standards in math and science.
  • Enhance opportunities for students that increase achievement and promote readiness for STEM-related postsecondary programs and careers.

STEMsmart Strategies:

Technology Enhancements

  • 58 classroom sets of TI-Nspire wireless handheld devices, which enable students and teachers to interact in real time using everyday examples to learn geometry, physics, and other subjects. Impacting 8,700 students at five local high schools and nine middle schools, this partnership with Texas Instruments makes STEMsmart the largest academic deployment of TI-Nspires in Florida. Venice High School Algebra I students achieved an unprecedented 100% end-of-course exam pass rate since this program began.
  • 50 STEMsmart “Classrooms of Tomorrow” have been installed throughout Sarasota County middle schools and are used by 8,000 students daily. The classrooms include touchscreen computers networked to teachers’ computers, digital probes and balances, and small-group configurations to foster collaborative problem-solving in math and science. The classrooms inspire teachers and students alike, with a level of engagement that is much higher because the classroom is finally smarter than their phones! The medium of learning is enhancing interest as well as the quality and speed of learning.

Teacher Training

  • More than 150 teachers have received training on ever-advancing STEMsmart techniques and tools, including inquiry-based learning, TI-Nspire handhelds, Math Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, Science Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, and common lesson planning. An Educator Summit in January 2013 brought teachers together to share best practices and introduce nanotechnology, sustainability, and other emerging topics. Additionally, the BYOD or “Bring Your Own Device” issue was explored in preparation for the 2014-15 State of Florida mandate for e-textbooks.

New and Hands-on Learning Opportunities

  • STEM-related academies have launched within area high schools, including health sciences, technology, engineering, and more (hundreds of students participating)
  • Before- and after-school science and math clubs (nearly 1,000 students participating in 2012-13)
  • STEMsmart summer camps (257 students participated in seven camps in 2012; 277 students participated in eight camps in 2011)
  • STEMsmart Summit (more than 200 students participated in all-day summit in 2012; 500-plus are expected on two campuses in March 2013)
  • STEM electives at two middle schools: 
    • L.A. Ainger Middle School offers two full-time elective STEM classes impacting 750 students a year
    • Heron Creek Middle School offers two sections with 20 students each

Externships, Mentoring, and Job-shadowing

  • More than 75 STEMsmart business partners have registered to serve as a job-shadowing or internship host, STEM club mentor, or classroom speaker.
  • Several teachers have participated in externships at local STEM businesses to better connect classroom content with the criteria for a successful career in a STEM field.
  • Many students have completed internships at local employers such as Venice Regional Medical Center, Englewood Community Hospital, DMK Associates (engineering firm), and Janoff and Khatri Pediatric Dentistry.
  • Nearly $300,000 in scholarships awarded to graduating high school students pursuing STEM education.
Learn more about STEMsmart from Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

 STEMsmart is Changing the Equation

 STEMsmart transforms learning via a vision (Venice Gondolier, April 25, 2015)

 STEM Initiative - White Paper (July 2010)


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ENGAGE is an initiative of Florida Philanthropic Network in partnership with its Education Affinity Group and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Special thanks to Jacksonville Public Education Fund, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Conn Memorial Foundation, TNTP and Pasco County Schools for their insight, time and contributions to the ENGAGE toolkit.