Building Philanthropy for a Better Florida

ENGAGE 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.