Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs


Collaboration, Cooperation, and Partnerships


As noted earlier, adult learners often require a variety of services, typically beyond the scope of most adult education programs, to overcome barriers to full participation in the education program. In addition, many programs have difficulty recruiting and retaining students. Building effective linkages with other agencies and community leaders can help adult education programs with both concerns. It can broaden, strengthen, and improve delivery, enabling more comprehensive services. It can also increase referrals to the program.

Developing effective working relationships with other agencies and others in the community takes careful cultivation. The manner in which agencies work together can range from a formal, structured partnership with memoranda of understanding specifying roles and responsibilities, to a collaboration where agencies work together on a specific project, to informal, on-going cooperation where agencies share information and provide referrals. Building a formal partnership is hard work. It is often best to start with a less formal collaboration or cooperative effort and let the partnership grow.

Why Collaborate?

By working together, agencies can:

  • provide more accurate and effective referrals
  • build community support
  • provide a more comprehensive array of services
  • share resources (including personnel) to expand services
  • secure joint funding
  • eliminate unnecessary duplication of services
  • report client data back to other programs to help track the success of their "graduates."

The mission of adult education - to enable adults to successfully negotiate challenges at home, at work, and in the community - overlaps with that of many other programs Adult educators should focus on what they do best: helping adults develop skills related to literacy, numeracy, language, and critical thinking. For other needs, learners can be referred to appropriate community agencies.

Besides providing a comprehensive package of services, collaboration can also help adult education programs reach and retain students. Community agencies that have contact with adults in need of educational strengthening can make supportive referrals to the education program. This may result in greater retention since learners will have someone encouraging them to follow through on the referral. The support person can also help the learner resolve issues that interfere with success, such as transportation, daycare, health care, or problems with specific teachers, program regulations, or scheduling.

Finally, all community programs need local political support to gain funding, access clients, and maintain a place in the service network. Through collaborative efforts, adult education programs can gain such support, transforming competitors into partners.

How to Build a Partnership

"Stakeholder" is a term frequently mentioned in discussing partnerships. A stakeholder is any individual or any agency with an interest or stake in the program or in the program's clients. For adult education programs, stakeholders might include:

  • students and their families
  • Department of Social Services
  • employers
  • Department of Labor
  • churches
  • Probation Department
  • community centers
  • Health Department
  • libraries
  • the Housing Authority
  • education funders and regulators
  • Head Start or daycare programs
  • mental health providers
  • the local workforce investment board
  • community or support service agencies
  • other local educational/vocational programs.

Stakeholders are potential partners. Learn as much as possible about their goals, mission, services, schedule, and desired outcomes. Then, explore the possible benefits of working collaboratively. If there is sufficient interest, establishing a partnership can be pursued.

Whether developing an informal collaboration or a formal partnership amongst stakeholders, there are several key issues that need to be addressed. The more formal the partnership, the more time should be allocated right at the start to address these issues. They include:

  • defining a common mission/vision for the partnership
  • identifying roles and responsibilities of individual partners
  • clarifying the benefits of partnering
  • building effective communication mechanisms
  • ensuring that members feel valued and that their role is meaningful
  • selecting evaluation criteria and processes.

The first step in building an effective partnership is to clearly define a mission/vision with specific goals and outcomes. The more focused and narrowly defined the partnership's mission, the easier it will be to get started. All members must have a stake in the issue around which the partnership is formed.

After defining the mission and goals, the partners need to identify roles and responsibilities for each member. These roles should be strategically assigned to ensure that the partnership is capable of achieving its mission. Members should handle the areas in which they are most skilled and have the greatest stake. It is important that all members have roles they consider meaningful and significant.

In a formal partnership, a substantial amount of time should be allocated right at the start to defining the mission, roles, and responsibilities for the partnership overall and for each member in the partnership. This discussion should address how decisions will be made, how funds will be allocated, how communication will be handled, and how meetings will be run. These decisions need to be reviewed periodically and revised as needed to keep the partnership functioning effectively.

Partners need to see that the partnership (or collaboration) will result in tangible benefits for themselves and for the clients they serve. While all stakeholders are committed to providing quality services for their clients, they are also committed to their individual success and survival. WIIFM ("What's in it for me?") was discussed earlier in terms of recruiting students. The same principle applies to agency collaboration. Participating in a collaborative effort must be mutually beneficial and the benefits must outweigh the costs for all involved. To be successful, each partner must make a commitment to accomplishing the cooperative mission.

The benefits of collaborating may be directly related to a program's current year goals or for promoting future growth to better serve learners. All program staff need to recognize the benefits if they are to willingly participate in the collaboration. In developing linkages and building partnerships, it is important to bring program staff on board early. Staff can visit other agencies, meet with their staff, and brainstorm vehicles for cooperation and collaboration. From these discussions, a consensus should emerge as to whether the benefits of collaboration are worth the investment of time and resources.

Another key component to effective partnerships is clear and frequent communication. Partners must be able to easily communicate about individual clients, the overall partnership, and other pertinent issues. This can occur through periodic meetings, by regular written communication, by phone, and electronically, via email or live "chats". In all communications, it is critical that client confidentiality be carefully maintained.

Partnerships cannot be effective unless there is a feeling of inclusion and respect among all members. Members should share leadership, authority, and decision making. All participants need to be valued for the resources they bring to the partnership and need to feel that they have influence in the partnership's decisions. As each partner brings something to the group that the others don't have, a sense of interdependence will develop. Group discussions should be guided by ground rules that promote positive interaction. Diversity should be welcomed and appreciated.

Whatever the level of collaboration - from informal cooperation to a formal partnership, it is important to conduct annual evaluations to assess the productivity and outcomes of the partnership. All partners should have a role in identifying the outcomes that will be evaluated and the criteria against which they will be measured. The evaluations will help determine the overall cost/benefit of the collaboration to programs and to clients and ways to increase benefits and reduce costs.

Partnerships Unique to Adult Education

Two specific partnerships relate directly to adult education programs: the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB) established under WIA and adult education advisory councils.

The WIB is a partnership mandated for many local programs, including adult education. Federal and state regulations specify much of the structure for this formal partnership. Locally developed memoranda of understanding further define roles and responsibilities.

The goal of this partnership is to develop a comprehensive network of services promoting employability. Assessment of basic skills and educational needs is a core service of the local one-stop, comprehensive service center established under WIA. Additional adult education and family literacy services can be provided at the one-stop center or can be accessed via the coordinated referral system established by the local WIB. At least one member of the WIB must be an education provider.

Another specific type of partnership that adult education programs may want to consider is an advisory council. Adult education programs are publicly supported and are often managed by a public agency. Involvement of community representatives (stakeholders) on an advisory council can help build community support, help focus program design to meeting real community needs, and help increase cooperation with other community agencies. An advisory council provides input and feedback to program management, including the operating board of the agency (e.g., school board, board of directors). It can also help with program operation.

The role of the advisory council and the scope of issues it will address needs to be clearly defined by program management before any members are recruited. If members are to stay involved, the council needs to have a substantive role with meaningful responsibilities. Some of the tasks with which an advisory council could assist include:

  • surveying the needs and interests of the community in regard to adult education
  • planning the education program
  • recruiting students
  • evaluating the program and presenting progress reports to the governing board
  • publicizing the program
  • serving as a link between the program and community organizations
  • obtaining financial assistance and additional services from public and private sectors
  • serving as a speakers' bureau to service groups, social agencies, and community organizations
  • locating education and training opportunities for adult learners.

When recruiting members to serve on an advisory council, it is important to represent the geographic, cultural, socio-economic, and political diversity of the service area. Characteristics to consider in selecting candidates include those with:

  • power and influence in the community
  • ability to access resources and build linkages with agencies, potential learners, funders, volunteers, and local media
  • special talents that can help further the program (e.g., legal, financial, construction skills, etc.)
  • knowledge of adult learner needs and interests (e.g., current program participants and program graduates).

Program managers need to keep their councils informed about on-going activities, successes, challenges, problems, etc. If program staff can provide clerical support to the council, this will help it function more effectively, particularly in its public relations/communication role. By partnering with learners and other community members through an advisory council, an adult education program can expand its human resources, build stronger connections to learners, and ensure that the program is focused on the most critical needs of the local community.

Barriers to Collaboration

There are many challenges to successful collaboration. Among the most common reasons for collaborations failing to work are:

  • lack of clarity or differing interpretations of goals, roles, and responsibilities.
  • hidden agendas. Partners have individual goals for the partnership that they don't share with each other.
  • competition for funding or clients.
  • killer meetings. Successful collaborators need to meet periodically to stay up-to-date and resolve issues. However, long, unfocused, and unproductive meetings discourage people from attending. Communication then breaks down.
  • culture clash. Partnerships develop their own institutional culture, which may not be compatible with the cultures of the individual member organizations. This makes it difficult for some member organizations to remain in the partnership.
  • power. Individual partners need to relinquish some control to the partnership overall.
  • conflicts in rules and regulations affecting participating agencies that make them focus on different client groups, different timetables, or different strategies.

There are additional barriers when working in partnership with disenfranchised learners (people with low literacy skills, immigrants with limited skills, non-English speakers, ex-inmates, etc.) and their families. These clients have little experience working in formal committees. They may not understand the role of a board or council member or the parliamentary process. Hence, they are hesitant about speaking in a formal setting. It may take longer to digest and fully understand informational materials.

Despite these challenges, there are many benefits to having learner representatives serve on community partnerships, advisory councils, boards, or committees. They bring an important perspective to the group. Learner involvement in program planning and evaluation can build ownership among the learners and provide targeted input to the program. To overcome the barriers to their participation, try to:

  • have other members of the group act as mentors (one-on-one) with learners.
  • provide extra background or briefing materials in advance of meetings.
  • keep meetings short and focused
  • establish a separate committee made up of learners to develop positions on issues. Several representatives of this group bring the committee's positions to the full group.
  • appoint three or more learners to a committee or board (never appoint only one or two) due to the feeling of safety in numbers.

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Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.