Schools Often Partner with Nonprofits to Benefit Students. Which Partnerships Last?
Skip to content
Operations Jul 18, 2023

Schools Often Partner with Nonprofits to Benefit Students. Which Partnerships Last?

One key to keeping programs afloat: flexibility.

school kids pick out coats at a school coat drive

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Samantha Keppler

Karen Smilowitz

Paul Leonardi

Nonprofits regularly partner with schools on a range of initiatives, from running music and art programs, to providing dental care, to delivering food and other resources. Such partnerships are especially critical for schools in under-resourced communities, which might otherwise struggle to provide students with these benefits.

But maintaining these partnerships is complex, and many don’t last, according to Karen Smilowitz, a professor of operations at the Kellogg School.

In an era of cash-strapped schools, understanding what goes into a long-term partnership is important. “Public schools and others face budget constraints so it’s important to think about … what makes their relationships with outside partners more likely to survive,” she says. “A lot of things go into whether these relationships succeed and endure.”

In an earlier study, Smilowitz and collaborators Samantha Keppler (then doctoral student working with Smilowitz) and Paul Leonardi of UC Santa Barbara interviewed principals, teachers, and parents at nine schools to understand how these partnerships came about in the first place. The team found that the perceived trustworthiness of the assisting organization played a large role in whether the school proceeded with a partnership, with factors such as the nonprofit’s institutional affiliations or relationships with other schools helping to push the needle.

In a more recent study, Smilowitz and Keppler, now at the University of Michigan, returned to the same schools from the previous study to understand: Which of the relationships between schools and nonprofits were still going strong five years later? And what, if anything, made those relationships more likely to stick around?

The researchers found that continuity of the relationship has a lot to do with just how “expensive” school administrators perceive the programs to be, in terms of both resources and time.

Specifically, schools that perceived the financial and administrative costs associated with the partnership as being “fixed,” and thus unlikely to change over time, had a harder time maintaining partnerships over the intervening five-year period than schools that perceived the costs as being flexible, or subject to change as participation in the program and other factors change.

“The relationships that continue for the longer term are the ones for which schools take a more flexible approach to costs,” Smilowitz says.

The cost of partnership

Despite schools being the beneficiaries of the art programs and school-supply drives offered by partnering organizations, the partnerships are hardly “free” for the schools involved.

“There are more straightforward costs, like financial costs to run transportation of students to a nonprofit program. But there are also administrative and coordination costs that might be harder to quantify but still impact the success of the relationship”—things like filling out paperwork or recruiting volunteers to help run programs, says Smilowitz.

So she and Keppler set out to understand how the schools perceive these costs, and perhaps use them to make decisions about whether or not to continue a partnership. Note that it was the perceptions of the school-based administrators and stakeholders about the costs of the program, rather than the actual costs incurred, that the researchers set out to study.

“The relationships that continue for the longer term are the ones for which schools take a more flexible approach to costs.”

Karen Smilowitz

The researchers studied nine schools in three neighborhoods in a major Midwestern city, along with 81 nonprofit programs that partner with them. In each neighborhood, they studied one public school, one private school, and one charter school; in this case, all the private schools studied were Catholic organizations.

“What’s neat about the data is that the neighborhoods are very different in socioeconomic distribution, but we looked at each of the types of schools in the same neighborhood,” Smilowitz says.

In their initial study, the researchers had interviewed and surveyed principals, teachers, and staff within the school systems. The also secured additional data through discussions with nonprofit leaders and research on all of the organizations under study.

In a follow-up survey with principals and lead teachers five years after their initial study, they asked whether the school had maintained each nonprofit relationship; if they hadn’t, respondents were asked why.

The benefits of flexibility

The researchers found that, when schools approached a relationship with a given nonprofit with a flexible approach to costs—and thus subject to periodic discussion and negotiation—the partnership tended to last. For example, a private school faced some initial obstacles partnering with a university teacher-education program, such as miscommunication about whether the volunteers would teach in the classroom. Over time, however, it was able to work through these challenges while focusing on longer-term benefits.

The value of maintaining a flexible approach to costs makes sense, particularly given how difficult it is to predict what will happen in the future.

Still, it was not entirely obvious that so many schools would find this approach more fruitful. “Many schools are resource-constrained, so it would be easy to assume they’d really want to quantify everything at the beginning and just stick to that,” Smilowitz says.

A school’s approach to these partnerships did not differ by socioeconomic factors (such as the income level of the neighborhood). But different types of schools did tend to favor different approaches. Specifically, charter schools were more likely to take a fixed-cost approach, while public and private schools in the study generally had more adaptable approaches.

“The exact reasons for that are unclear,” Smilowitz says, “but it could be partly because charter schools just have a very different model.” Charter schools with a fixed-cost approach had more nonprofit relationships that no longer existed five years later; charter schools were also more likely to cancel these partnerships than the other types of schools.

An evolving, thoughtful approach

The study carries practical implications for schools and the nonprofits that partner with them.

But it’s not so simple as suggesting school administrators should abandon fixed-cost approaches altogether, says Smilowitz. “Simply saying, ‘Oh, you should be flexible’ doesn’t take into account how hard that can be. What resources the school has matters, for example, and taking a fixed approach can help ensure these are sufficient for the partnership.”

In general, a fixed-cost approach may still make sense for partnerships where schools absolutely need to commit a certain amount of money or space to make the partnership work. In one case, for example, a school recognized upfront it couldn’t ask teachers to devote additional classroom time to implementing a nonprofit program and declined to start the proposed partnership.

“There’s a principal we interviewed who says, ‘I say yes to everything because I want to accept the help,’” says Smilowitz. This may not always be the right call. “So the question is, what are the pros and cons of saying yes to everything? How should you think about your portfolio relationships with the nonprofits? It’s also important to think about what’s the right number of relationships to have.”

But much of the time, flexibility is really useful, says Smilowitz. “There was an example of a nonprofit program where transportation to the program wasn’t included. That was fine when the weather was good, but when that changed it meant more outlay of resources for the school.” If the school hadn’t taken a flexible approach, that partnership couldn’t have continued.

The bottom line is that it’s best for both sides to take a thoughtful approach to a partnership, recognizing they can’t know everything upfront.

“In many cases it’s an evolving relationship the school and nonprofit will figure out together,” Smilowitz says.

Featured Faculty

Professor of Operations; Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

Faculty member in the Department of Management & Organizations until 2014

About the Writer

Sachin Waikar is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

About the Research

Keppler, Samantha, Karen Smilowitz, and Paul Leonardi. 2021. "Contextual Trustworthiness of Organizational Partners: Evidence from Nine School Networks." Manufacturing & Service Operations Management. 23(4): 974–988.

Read the original

Keppler, Samantha, and Karen Smilowitz. 2023. "The Costs of Nonprofit-Provided Resources and Services: Evidence from School Beneficiaries." Working Paper.

More in Operations