There are a number of reasons for a district, school or afterschool program to seek partnerships with organizations from within their communities. A district or school might be looking for an artist to teach pottery once a week or a community-based provider to administer their afterschool program. A community-based afterschool provider may be looking for an opportunity to expand the number of programs they manage by partnering with a school or district, or they could be looking for enrichment providers to supplement their own program offerings. So how do schools and programs let the community know about their needs? How do community organizations let schools and programs know what they have to offer? How can these groups get together to form the partnerships that will meet their needs? They need a chance to make personal connections, and a partnership fair is a great way to spark these connections.
For several years, the Santa Clara County After School Collaborative, based in Santa Clara, California, has sponsored a series of partnership fairs, called Vendor Showcases, as a way to bring schools and districts in need of afterschool partners together with organizations, agencies, providers and vendors from within their communities. The Vendor Showcase resembles a trade show at a conference. Representatives from school districts, schools and afterschool programs from across four neighboring counties make their way through a large conference room filled with booths and displays set up by a variety of local community organizations, including the San Jose Museum of Art, the YMCA and YWCA, After-School All-Stars, Boys & Girls Clubs, local artists, and curriculum vendors. The organizations decorate their booth space with visual displays demonstrating what they have to offer, including pictures of youth engaged in their activities, letters and testimonials from parents and youth participants, and fliers and handouts describing their organization and the various services and programming that they offer. As the school, district and afterschool personnel make their way through the conference space, they stop to talk to the various vendors and providers, peruse the displays and materials and engage the vendors in conversation about what they can bring to their schools or programs and how the services might be a good fit.
Tips for a successful partnership fair
The following are some tips for planning and hosting a partnership fair, based upon the Collaborative's experiences with the vendor showcases.
Make the planning process collaborative.
Planning such a large event on your own may be overwhelming, so put together a planning committee to divide up the work and help guide the vision of the fair. This will both lessen the burden on you and your staff and foster buy-in among those who will be involved. You can invite your district superintendents or their staff, representatives from your county office of education, school principals, representatives from your city park and recreation department, and, most important, afterschool leaders and youth workers.
Together, you and your planning committee will have to decide the overall goal of the fair and which providers and vendors from the community will be invited. The committee will also need to work out the various logistical details, such as where the fair will be held, what the budget will be and where the funding will come from. To help off-set the cost of the fair, you may want to consider charging vendors and providers a nominal fee for participation. And it is highly recommended that you approach partners on your planning committee about offering the use of their facilities for the fair. A school could offer the use of a gymnasium or a multi-purpose room, a Boys and Girls Club could offer its clubhouse, or the county office of education or district office could offer one of their meeting rooms.
Identify potential partners.
If there's one critical piece of advice for planning a successful partnership fair, it is this: Start planning a couple months in advance. Depending on how aware you are of resources in your community, it will take some legwork to identify community organizations, agencies, vendors and afterschool providers to invite. There are a number of places you can look. If your city recreation and parks department has provided organized youth activities or afterschool programming, they may have a list of approved content and enrichment providers. Your county office of education may also have a list of providers and vendors who have worked with districts and individual schools. Your state department of education should have a list of local 21st Century Community Learning Center and state-funded afterschool program grantees, including schools, districts and community-based afterschool providers. Additionally, your local United Way organization may be able to provide you with a list of youth serving and community-based organizations in your community.
In putting together your list of invitees, keep these considerations in mind:
- Be open to new ideas. Of course, you will want to look for established organizations that have worked with the schools, the district or afterschool programs, but be open to other opportunities such as a parent who has been teaching tai-chi at one of the elementary schools or a community health agency that can connect youth and families with health services.
- Know what the schools' and districts' needs are. In order for a partnership fair to be successful, the vendors need to have something relevant to offer the districts, schools and afterschool programs. Examine what the districts' and schools' goals are for afterschool and for the school day and how providers and vendors can support those goals. For example, if the district has placed a priority on academic achievement, look for organizations that have a focus on academic enrichment. If schools are looking for partners who can help bring the arts to the afterschool programs, look for enrichment providers with a focus on arts education. If afterschool programs are looking to supplement their sports and physical activity offerings, look for organizations that have experience implementing these activities. Most important, whatever the area of focus, find organizations with something exciting to offer.
Promote the event.
There is simply not enough that can be said about the importance of promoting your partnership fair. The most carefully planned fair cannot be a success if schools, districts and afterschool programs don't show up. Therefore, you must wisely use the resources at your disposal to help get the word out. Ask members of your planning committee to promote the fair through their networks. Call the school districts and schools directly and extend a personal invitation to participate. Create fliers outlining event details and send these to the schools, afterschool providers and districts. And don't hesitate to ask your county office of education for help. Some initial points of contact could be the director of instructional support services, county superintendent, director of educational services or the marketing department. Or, start with someone you already know within the office and then work from there.
Promoting the event among the vendors and providers is equally important. Send a letter of invitation and a registration form to the vendors and providers on your invite list, and follow up with a phone call to confirm their participation. Stress that this is will be an important opportunity for them to make personal connections to the schools, districts and afterschool programs in their communities and could lead to partnerships and business arrangements.
Prepare your participants.
The Santa Clara County After School Collaborative has found that providing districts, schools and afterschool providers with information about the vendors and providers who will be taking part in the fair can help facilitate introductions and personal connections. As part of the informational packets provided to attendees at the fairs, the Collaborative includes brief profiles of each potential partner that cover the essential details about the organization and leaves room for the participants to make notes. In order to prepare these materials, ask providers and vendors to complete a formal registration form that covers this information, including the name of organization, the services they offer, their target audience, a succinct program summary (who they are and what they do in 10 words or less), and the name of a contact person with at least two forms of contact information.
You will also want to provide the vendors and providers with details about the event, such as how many districts, schools or afterschool programs are expected to attend, what age groups they serve, and what they will be looking for in a partner. It will also be very helpful to provide them with logistical information about the facility where you will be holding the event, such as the size of the table or exhibit space and whether there are power outlets and/or audio/visual set-ups available. As a precaution, check with the facility manager to see if there are any special restrictions regarding the use of the space, and make the vendors and providers aware of these ahead of time.
Start planning for the future.
The success of a partnership fair will build gradually because it takes time to establish contact and build rapport with schools, districts and with content and service providers in your community. Therefore, make the partnership fair an annual event. Even before the date of the partnership fair nears, you should already be planning ahead for the next one. In order to do so, you will need to know what worked and what needed work, so don't be shy about soliciting feedback from the participants, and the vendors and providers. Include an evaluation form in the participants' packets and ask them to complete it and return it to you before they leave. Ask them to rate their overall experience, get their opinions on the variety of vendors and providers and how helpful this partnership fair was in facilitating connections with potential partners, and ask for suggestions for what they'd like to see next year. Provide a similar form to the vendors, and give them a chance to sign up for next year's fair. Also, be sure to let them know about any positive feedback you received about them from the districts or schools.
Other strategies for connecting partners: a community connections summit
A community connections summit is another way to foster afterschool partnerships by bringing stakeholders together to discuss program needs and identify opportunities for collaboration. What is unique about this model is that the format is structured to maximize interaction and meaningful dialogue among stakeholders. The Center for Collaborative Solutions has created a step-by-step guide to planning and facilitating a community connections summit, from forming a leadership committee to identifying participants. The guide, available for download from the Center for Collaborative Solutions website, also includes sample materials such as facilitators' guides and evaluation forms.