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Creativity Matters: The Arts and Aging Toolkit
photo of five people dancing with a saxophonist (Kairos)

6.2: Finding and Working with Partners

Stagebridge’s “Storybridge” artist-in-residence program is the best language development program we have ever had in our classroom. My students are getting up in front of the room and expressing themselves, in a way that means something to them! With the current state of funding for the arts, our students don’t get these opportunities. Third-grade teacher, Fruitvale School

Programs developed collaboratively among partners have a sustained impact on the older adult participants’ quality of life. Staff members benefit as well from the process of developing a partnership and the support of a learning community. Keys to an effective partnership are communication among members of the partnership team, meeting each other’s needs, clarifying responsibilities in writing, and educating all staff who might be involved in the program. Though there are challenges, if you and your partners commit to an ongoing dialogue and keep the needs of the participants as your touchstone, your collaboration will have a long-term, win-win-win collaboration. The adage is true: “Two heads are better than one.”

Working in partnership with another organization may not be necessary if you have the expertise and resources in-house to design and implement a program that will have a positive impact on older adults. A lifelong learning institute or a community school of the arts, for example, may be effective without formal partners. Such an organization does, however, need to work in partnership with teaching artists and program participants. In community arts, all segments of the community are partners.

Much has been written about the process, benefits, successes, and challenges of partnerships. This toolkit section focuses on advice and examples that are most relevant to arts and aging work:

Understanding Partnerships

Writing about nonprofit arts partnerships as “an art form,” Thomas E. Backer makes the following observations:

  1. Systematic planning is critical to the ultimate success of partnerships, leading to a set of objectives and activities that the partnership’s members can support.
  2. Psychological challenges, such as power differences among the partners or resistances based upon previous bad experiences with other partnerships, can seriously jeopardize the chances for success. The partnership must focus on identifying potential challenges and then taking active steps to resolve them.
  3. A strong core idea or intervention strategy lies at the heart of most successful partnerships—they’re “about something” that is concrete and relatively easy for the partners to identify.
  4. Partnerships are not cost-free. They require financial and human resources to be successful.
  5. Strategies learned from other successful partnerships can be incorporated usefully into a new partnering activity, especially if these strategies are available at the critical early planning stages.
  6. Partnerships that succeed over time also evolve over time, as they learn from their successes and failures and maintain responsiveness to their community environments.
  7. Good partnerships begin with a due diligence process to look at the pros and cons of partnering, including an estimate of needed start-up costs, done before the initial decision to partner is made.
  8. If a partnership is intended to survive over a longer period, planning for sustainability is needed at the outset, including creation of a revenue model that will provide financial support beyond initial funding (e.g., a time-limited foundation or government grant).71

Backer also outlines the typical life cycle of a partnership:

  1. Planning
  2. Setting objectives
  3. Defining leadership
  4. Defining membership
  5. Mobilizing resources
  6. Integrating with the community environment
  7. Implementing the partnership
  8. Evaluating the partnership
  9. Promoting sustainability72

Planning Partnerships

Identifying and securing an organizational partner with whom you can grow (i.e., a “planning partnership”) requires a systematic approach with plenty of lead time: from two months to a year. Develop as much as possible of the program with your partner or partners, with the goal of creating a win-win-win situation for each organization and for participants. This means assessing compatibility—alignment of values, mission, and philosophy of care—and capacity—what you need to do versus what can be done.

Use the following checklist when you investigate and meet with potential partners and decide collaboratively how to design, implement, and evaluate the program. This list also serves as an accountability checklist for the partnership and the foundation for the written partnership agreement:

A written agreement is essential to an effective partnership. Having everything clearly stated in writing means you can focus primarily on the program, not on the mechanics. But a piece of paper doesn’t always guarantee a smooth-running partnership. To mitigate challenges, be sure the signatories are leaders who convey the value of the program throughout their organizations or facilities and that you have an accountability system in place to enforce the partnership agreement.

Identifying and Securing Partners

The next step is to find a partner with whom to flesh out the details and implement the program. One source is the list compiled during your external assessment process: stakeholders. But don’t rule out competitors. OASIS, for example, occasionally partners with other lifelong learning institutes. Look for organizations with enlightened self-interest. Keep in mind that self-interest may be pragmatic as well as philosophical: employing artists, increasing ticket revenue, reducing staff turnover, or attracting new residents. Indeed, for residential facilities, a professionally led, participatory arts program is a marketing tool.

The Levine School of Music found a win-win-win partnership for one of its senior choruses. When the chorus elected at the last minute to rehearse throughout the summer, the space at the school was already booked. Instead, the school initiated a partnership with a residential facility that provides independent and assisted living. The partnership helped recruit new chorus members, provide enjoyment for residents, and market the facility.

Search for partner organizations that are stable and have a track record of long-term and effective partnerships. Good indicators of stability are long-tenured staff and sustained growth in the sophistication of programs. In an arts organization, look for an aging services partner that has a person-centered approach to caring for older adults. In an aging service organization, find an arts partner that has experience in community arts education and employs teaching artists. Ask around the community, particularly the local arts agency or area agency on aging, to gain this information.

Where to Find Partners

Though likely partner organizations will vary by community, investigate these possibilities:

If you are in the arts field:

If you are in the aging services field:

If you are in either field:

Good information sources on potential partners are the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts and the National Center for Creative Aging.

Each of these groups has a different entry point. While ultimately you want the buy-in of top leaders, search first for an ally with whom you can strategize on how best to get institutional support.

Once you know what door to open, just pick up the phone and call. One conversation topic might be results of recent research into the benefits of arts participation to older adults. Ideally, your initial dialogue will lead to a meeting where key representatives discuss some of the big-picture items on the checklist, such as vision, mission, goals, and philosophy. If the partnership looks like a good fit, start talking about timeline, number of participants, budget, and responsibilities, and confirm members of the partnership team.

At the first planning meeting, provide written information that describes your organization and outlines the proposed partnership program, including objectives, activities, instructional design, responsibilities, timetable, and projected budget. Appendix 2 describes the Center for Elders and Youth in the Arts’ general program schedule and timeline.

After the partner representatives have reflected on the program and discussed any issues internally, schedule a second meeting to finalize arrangements. Keep in mind that each partner has different priorities. For example,

a home-care agency is primarily concerned with the basic needs of the elders: food, clothing, and safety… . A youth services agency is likely to want to ensure that the program will teach the teenagers to grow up to be responsible adults… . A nursing home or hospital will be concerned about the safe use of supplies such as scissors. It will want to clarify the relationship between the arts coordinator and its own staff, in connection with the goals of recreational therapy.73

Most planning occurs with the partnership team, which is also involved in training program partners and then implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the program. This group is a learning community and the locus of ongoing communication. Members include:

Be careful that the team is not too small or too large; between four and eight members is a good standard. The team needs a leader and a lead organization. One plan that contributes to the growth of each partner in a multiyear partnership is for the leadership to rotate each year. A good resource to help ensure effective team discussions is Basic Facilitation Skills.

Training Partners

Just because the partnership agreement has been signed and everything is in place doesn’t mean that all of the players have the information that they need to ensure the success of the program. Inevitably, there are differences in organizational culture and expectations that weren’t discussed in the team meetings. There are staff members at all levels who aren’t part of the inner circle, but will be involved in some manner—for example, professional caregivers. It is important to broaden the circle of people the partnership team educates because of turnover. And the team should be prepared to conduct periodic training sessions throughout the program and have written materials to distribute to new staff or to offer as a refresher. An effective method is to plan joint professional development opportunities among team members and other staff. This approach creates and strengthens the learning community and each person’s commitment to and knowledge of the program.

Cover these topics in training:

Don’t assume that the staff of an aging services organization understands normal aging or that the staff of an arts organization understands the nuances of community arts. In dance, for example, traditional instruction is top-down. But in creating a dance with a community, the work is bottom-up, soliciting ideas and movements from everyone.

Implementing the Partnership

The key to success as you move forward together to implement the partnership is communication among members of the partnership team. Plan regular meetings, and don’t hesitate to pick up the phone. Don’t let issues fester.

Whether you are new or experienced at partnerships, challenges are inevitable. According to a report from the Wallace Foundation,

partnerships can fail for three major reasons: partners can’t carry out their assignments (“capacity risk”), won’t do so (“commitment risk”), or can’t agree on what counts as success (“culture risk”). There is also a fourth risk—the risk of unanticipated costs.74

Other challenges include:

If the partnership is struggling and you are facing insurmountable challenges, remember that you are not bound together for life. If you’ve tried hard, but the partnership isn’t working, move on.

Key Points about Partnerships


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Appendix 1:
SWOT Analysis

Template Program Logic Model

Sample Program Logic Model

Appendix 2:
Project Timeline Formula and Curriculum Planning Format

Appendix 3: Fundraising Tools
Kairos Dance Theatre Brochure

New Horizons Budget

Kairos Dance Theatre Support Letters (1) (2)

Funding Proposal (Stagebridge)

Appendix 4: Marketing Tools
New Horizons Music Brochure