The Potential Power and Pitfalls of Partnerships: Two Case Studies

PartnershipBy Ramie Arian and Daniel Perla

Research on strategic alliances and business partnerships indicates that at least 70% of them fail to deliver their intended outcome. It seems almost too obvious to state, but it’s also very easy to overlook, that true, meaningful, inter-agency collaboration is hard. When push comes to shove, every institution will naturally – and appropriately – put its own needs and its own interests ahead of the interests and needs of its partner, and of the partnership itself. We have learned much about the nature of partnerships through our experiences with two programs that center on collaboration: Nadiv and The RFP for Day School Collaboration and Cost Savings (RFP for School Collaboration). Under the right conditions, collaborations among two or more institutions can be powerful and successful. Ensuring that these conditions are in place will significantly raise the likelihood of eventual success.

Sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), with support from The Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVI CHAI Foundation, Nadiv is an innovative pilot program in which experiential Jewish educators – Nadiv Educators – are shared by nonprofit Jewish camps and Jewish day or synagogue schools. Based on earlier work from the Legacy Heritage foundation, Nadiv’s primary objectives are to: 1) Enhance the quality of Jewish education for campers at participating camps; 2) Enrich Jewish experiential education at participating schools; and 3) Build mutually beneficial camp/school partnerships. Each partnership (there were 6 in total) recruited and engaged a full-time, year-round Jewish educator who works at both institutions. The program generously subsidizes the Nadiv Educators’ salaries and benefits on a declining scale. (A more detailed description can be found here.

Sponsored by The AVI CHAI Foundation, the RFP for School Collaboration (RFP) funded more than 15 Jewish day school collaborations that centered on cost savings. Funding priority was given to collaborations that not only saved money but that were pertinent and scalable to other day schools across the country. Projects funded included: school mergers, back office integrations, energy consortiums and shared employees.

Several lessons from both programs have emerged which, as the funders had hoped, can inform program planners far beyond the narrow confines of the two projects themselves. Here are some of the most important takeaways.

Partnerships Need To Grow Organically

It seems likely that a partnership which grows organically will have a higher chance of sustainability than one that is catalyzed by a program sponsor. The 2012 merger of Solomon Schechter Day School and Saul Mirowitz Day School in St. Louis provides a good example of an “organic” partnership. Each school recognized that its small size threatened its long term financial viability and that a merger was in its own best interests. The RFP may have catalyzed the process by bringing the two schools together, but the need to partner emerged organically. The Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School has, according to its web site, “attracted national attention because it is the first instance in which Reform and Conservative schools have merged.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that many of the partnerships which the programs funded did not emerge organically. Rather, the financial incentives offered as a part of both programs may have “forced” partnerships to emerge where they might not have, absent the financial incentive. Even with the financial inducement, several approved RFP projects never actualized because the partners could not find common ground.

Partners’ interests need to be Well Aligned

Collaborations need something to make them ‘stick’ – a shared vision or mutual need that makes it worth pushing through the challenges and risks inherent in partnerships.

A number of school partnerships funded by the RFP and several Nadiv partnerships were less than fully successful because they lacked one or both of these elements. It is critically important to determine in advance, to the extent possible, that the interests of the prospective partners are well aligned. As the Nadiv evaluation report notes: “Observation of the Nadiv partnerships to date suggests that aligning the interests of camp, school and the Nadiv Educator is a difficult but necessary task for a sustaining a partnership in the long term.”

The pairing between URJ Crane Lake Camp and the religious school of Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City is a good example of a partnership which is succeeding well, thanks to well-aligned goals (and despite what appeared to be a less-than-auspicious beginning). At the outset, each of the partners was wary about the pairing, which was catalyzed by the program sponsor. The synagogue, a large urban congregation whose members’ children attend more than 30 different Jewish camps throughout the Northeast, was circumspect about establishing a relationship which would privilege only one of these camps. The camp, whose catchment area includes well over 125 Reform congregations, was equally wary of privileging only one of the synagogues. Yet because the two institutions’ needs and goals are so well aligned, the partnership has evolved to be effective and mutually beneficial.

Partners’ Leadership Turnover Is To Be Expected

Contrary to much of the conversation in the larger Jewish world, where succession planning is much-discussed, and limited upward professional mobility is a concern, we’ve learned that in the more limited world of Jewish education, turnover is everywhere.

We expected there to be some turnover among the Nadiv Educators over the duration of the program. They are, after all, early career professionals, whose job tenure (we are told) averages just over two years. We were positively surprised to find that, of the six Nadiv partnerships, only one to date has seen a new Nadiv Educator take over for one who has left the program.

What we did not anticipate was the extensive turnover among relevant leadership of the partner institutions. From its outset, Nadiv involved 16 different institutions (six schools, six camps, two funders, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Foundation for Jewish Camp). Since the inception of the pilot program, key personnel who have been responsible for supervising their institution’s involvement in Nadiv have turned over in eight cases. In many cases, supervisory turnover has been very disruptive to the smooth continuity of the program.

Within the RFP, several partnerships involved the hiring of a joint employee, typically to serve as a fundraiser or back office integrator for two or more schools. Working for two or more institutions at once is clearly not easy. These “joint employees” often resigned, were asked to leave or ended up working for only one of the partners.

Our experience with Nadiv and with the RFP reinforces our understanding of the potential power of cross-institutional partnerships. At the same time, we’ve learned (again) just how difficult it is for institutions to partner or collaborate successfully. More and more, we are convinced that the chances of success in partnering across institutions will be enhanced if their leaders do the slow, hard work of relationship building; if they seek out partners with whom they have a natural synergy; if they attend to the alignment of their needs and interests; and if they are prepared for inevitable leadership transition.

Ramie Arian is a consultant who works with sponsors of Jewish camps and other venues for experiential Jewish education. He serves as project manager for Nadiv.

Daniel Perla is Vice President for Program and Strategy at FJC. He previously served as a program officer in day school finance at The AVI CHAI Foundation.