Chapter 9: Creative Collaborations: The Promise of Strategic Partnerships

by Mary-Beth A. Cooper, Ph.D., D.M.

Posted on March 25, 2020

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The future is collaborative. For small, private, four-year colleges, it is also, as countless articles and reports have warned, replete with risk. But despite the most challenging combination of demographic and cultural headwinds in generations, schools that choose to carefully cultivate vibrant, synergistic partnerships can not only survive but flourish.

In some ways, this is not a new idea. Colleges large and small have often found partners. Springfield College, where I have worked since 2013, has long embraced service and teamwork. Indeed, our founding story, which describes our roots as a professional training school within the YMCA, is one of partnership. What has changed, however, is the urgency of this charge—and the conception of the forms such partnerships can take. 

The litany of perils threatening to capsize small colleges has been well-documented. In New England especially, demographic shifts have already begun to narrow traditional admissions channels and introduce an undercurrent of uncertainty. There have been some high-profile casualties, and the storm shows no signs of abating. In Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins, 2018), Carleton’s Nathan D. Grawe points to a variety of factors, including birth rates, immigration, and interstate migration, in explaining why “beginning in the mid-2020s, many colleges will enter an extended period of shrinking recruitment pools.” 

While many colleges have responded to this challenge with creativity and vigor, few have yet harnessed the full potential inherent in partnering with like-minded institutions. Confidently embracing such partnerships is a crucial step in securing a stable future for our small colleges. For robust, imaginative schools, fostering such relationships can be a strategy not of desperation, but of inspiration. 

While many colleges have responded to this challenge with creativity and vigor, few have yet harnessed the full potential inherent in partnering with like-minded institutions.  

When I assumed the presidency at Springfield College, one of the first commitments I made was to build strategic partnerships that would support and sustain the campus and the surrounding community, enhance and promote the College’s profile locally and nationally, and provide unparalleled opportunities for students. A shining example of such a collaboration has been our partnership with the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation. In 2017, we partnered with the Ripken Foundation to create on our existing Archie Allen field an intercollegiate, adaptive, wheelchair-accessible baseball field known as “the ability field.” Designed to be enjoyed by athletes of all abilities—including those with special needs—and referred to as the “Springfield Model” by the foundation, the field is the first of its kind. It includes an artificial turf field, bullpens, batting cages, a new grandstand, a new scoreboard, and a sound system that serves both the adaptive and the Springfield College team fields. It also has a compact infield and bases that are level to the ground to accommodate use by players with canes or wheelchairs. 

The magic of such a project is that it is closely aligned with the missions of both Springfield College and the Ripken Foundation. As an institution dedicated to education and service, Springfield now has a space where our students can develop their skills as leaders, athletes, and coaches. Those studying education or rehabilitation can gain invaluable experience working with children of diverse backgrounds and abilities. At the same time, the field furthers the Ripken Foundation’s mission to help underserved youth achieve their full potential, both through the College’s service to the local community and through our work with the Miracle League of Western Massachusetts, another partner who regularly hosts games at the field. 

Partnerships also open doors to further collaboration, providing a context in which organizations with specific resources and expertise can support each other in myriad ways. Following our ability field collaboration, Springfield College has provided support in the development of the Ripken Foundation’s strategic plan. As a further result of our partnership, I now serve on the Foundation’s board. My regular presence in Baltimore means Springfield College now has both an expanded platform for recruitment and a vehicle for regional brand awareness. Such reciprocity is a hallmark of successful partnerships. 

Partnerships also open doors to further collaboration, providing a context in which organizations with specific resources and expertise can support each other in myriad ways.  

Something else I’ve learned is that partnerships often lead to more partnerships. As a result of relationships connected to our collaboration with the Ripken Foundation, Springfield College in April of 2018 hosted a Major League Baseball “Play Ball” event for local elementary-age children, complete with members of the Boston Red Sox organization and a visit from famed mascot Wally the Green Monster. With guidance from Major League Baseball Vice President for Baseball and Softball Development David James, Springfield College sport management and recreation students, along with baseball and softball team members, served as clinicians and assisted MLB staff members in leading fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students from the nearby Elias Brookings Elementary School and William N. DeBerry Elementary School through baseball and softball activities. James later delivered the 24th annual Weckwerth Lecture—fittingly titled “Social Impact as Good Business”—and in July of 2018, Springfield hosted the regional championship for MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, an initiative designed to provide young people from underserved and diverse communities with opportunities to play baseball and softball. The ripples continue to spread. 

Though many partnerships are by design, others emerge through serendipity. One of our newest collaborations arose from an accident of geography and an alignment of values. When Educare Springfield was seeking a site for its innovative early-childhood education program, the nonprofit reached out to us to ask about building the new site on land the college owned. Seeing a chance to build value for Springfield College students while helping the local community, we seized the opportunity. Now, Educare Springfield has a new home, and Springfield College students and faculty have a rich new resource for training and research. 

Finally, Springfield College’s commitment to strategic collaboration is nowhere more evident than in the college’s foundational partnership with the YMCA. The bond dates back to the 1880s, and many Springfield graduates have gone on to careers in the Y. The college’s YMCA Club is active on campus, and YMCA Professional Studies remains a popular minor. 

With the recent launch of an online degree completion program, we decided to open a new chapter in that relationship. Early in my tenure, I had initiated conversations with YMCA leadership about how to reinvigorate our work together. When those talks culminated in meetings at YMCA headquarters in Chicago, one goal that surfaced for the Y was to find a way for more Y professionals to complete their undergraduate degrees. With online learning already top of mind, we initiated programs to allow Springfield College to offer degrees to a more diverse array of students around the world—including Y workers seeking to further their careers through education. An ancillary partnership with the Harold Smith Foundation allowed us to offer scholarships to qualifying members of the YMCA workforce. The resulting synergies have been tremendous, with Y workers making professional strides even as Springfield College graduates go on to explore careers at the Y. 

Having seen firsthand the ways that collaborations like these can succeed, I am convinced that, in an increasingly precarious environment, colleges seeking to bolster stability (and operating budgets) should consider cultivating strategic partnerships. I offer the lessons below in the hope that they will provide a starting point for other institutional leaders who see the potential in partnerships and are considering developing or expanding their own. 

Seek partnerships before you need them. It is much better to offer partnership from a position of strength than from a position of weakness. The right time to do so is when you can honestly say that the project will happen whether or not the prospective partner signs on. In Springfield College’s conversations with the Ripken Foundation about the ability field, I made it clear that while we very much wanted to work with them, we were going ahead with the project regardless. The best approach to potential partners is to offer them the opportunity to participate in exciting projects, rather than approaching them from a place of need. 

Welcome serendipity and emphasize reciprocity. Collaborations can arise from something as simple as an accident of geography. When Educare was seeking space for a new facility, the nonprofit reached out to Springfield College to ask about siting the building on land the college owned. Seeing a chance to help the local community while also building value for Springfield College faculty and students—through expanded opportunities for practice and research—we seized the opportunity. 

Invite faculty into the conversation early. At Springfield College, faculty voices have been vital to helping us clarify the goals of our partnerships while staying true to our educational mission. Their passion and expertise, both in their pedagogy and in their particular fields of study, lie at the heart of our success. Their early buy-in is crucial. 

To thine own self be true—or, never compromise institutional integrity. At Springfield College, our core commitment to the values of humanics—spirit, mind, body, and leadership in service to others—will never change. These keystones to a successful, fulfilled life are the foundation of our institutional identity. In choosing partners, it is critically important that their values align with yours. Your missions may be somewhat different, but your values and “brands” must be congruent. 

Look for opportunities to reinvent or reinvigorate existing partnerships. At Springfield, our relationship with the YMCA reaches back more than a century. This afforded us trust and flexibility as we worked to establish the Harold Smith Foundation scholarships for Y workers. In the process, we renewed and expanded an existing relationship that undergirds our stability and growth. 

Broaden your field of curiosity—and get out of your comfort zone. A personal example: my husband is a surety underwriter for an insurance company. His clients are contractors. As a result, engineering-news magazines are often mailed to our home. When I flip through them and read about regional contractors, I see potential partners. When I accompany him to his annual conference, I see a very different business model and talk to professionals in a very different field—and I always learn something I can bring back to campus. Such learning can take many forms, but the only way to expose your organization to new thinking is to challenge yourself, as a leader, to engage with it and to get out of your comfort zone. 

Strategy first. If you’re focused on tactics, it’s easy to miss the big picture and the big opportunities. Clear time in your calendar to reflect on key projects and possible partnerships around each of them. 

Engage your trustees and your community. Most members of your board of trustees probably work in the business world. If they aren’t directly involved with a potential partner, they may well know someone who is. Being visible in your community is another good way to build the relationships that can lead to strategic partnerships. I have found real value in attending civic events and chamber of commerce meetings and connecting with business networking groups. Let the community see that you want to be involved, and offer to share resources where appropriate. Recent examples at Springfield College have included inviting the Western Massachusetts Police Academy to hold its graduation on our campus and collaborating with Massachusetts State Senator Eric Lesser to hold a Thrive Over 55 event in our Field House. Investments in community will pay dividends. 

Finally, let partnerships be fun. Fostering bonds with institutions that share our values is inspiring work. In developing strategic partnerships at Springfield College, I have met an enormous number of kind, talented, connected professionals for whom the bottom line is adding to the good in their communities and in the world. It is affirming, revitalizing, and just plain interesting to learn about their work, to compare visions, and to explore the possibilities and potential in finding common ground.