By Alesia Howard
The saying, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much,” is undeniably true—especially in local government. Partnerships are often what make or break new legislation, programs, and initiatives. If they’re done correctly, partnerships increase efficiency and propel what are otherwise mediocre operations to greatness. In the parks and recreation profession, strategic collaborations are the key to successful programs. Everything from park maintenance to community recreation relies on bringing people and resources together from various organizations to tackle challenges and maximize impact.
One example of this type of collaboration is the Urban Lacrosse Initiative in Columbus, Ohio. While the popularity of lacrosse has grown, diversity of players has lagged. In 2016, nearly 86 percent of all college lacrosse players were white. The problem is not that underrepresented groups are not earning scholarships to play collegiately. The problem is that they do not have access to learn and play the game. In Columbus, of the 20 public high schools, only two have lacrosse teams. While perception and lack of resources are two key barriers, access to training is low-hanging fruit that can be addressed through strategic collaboration and partnerships.
To advance geographic, ethnic, and gender diversity in future generations of lacrosse players, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department partnered with the Ohio Machine—a local, major-league lacrosse team—US Lacrosse, and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission to host the first-ever Urban Lacrosse Summer Clinic in 2017. This clinic not only showcased the game to 80 kids in the community, but helped alleviate barriers traditionally associated with playing lacrosse, such as cost and access to resources.
As a continuation of the clinic, nearly 280 youth from the city’s community centers participated in lacrosse camps this summer. This initiative was a result of grant funds provided by the Ohio Machine Foundation to cover the cost of a seasonal employee and equipment. Additional volunteers and equipment donations from The Ohio State University, Wittenberg University, Olentangy High School, the Columbus Police Department, and the U.S. military helped kick-start a successful pilot program.
Bring It To The Table
Organizations like US Lacrosse and the Ohio Machine work every day to provide access and education, but as parks and recreation organizations, we have access to some of the most diverse groups of youth in our respective cities. It’s time to begin partnering with outside organizations to maximize our reach for the greater good of our communities.
I have been fortunate to have a front-row seat to many private-public partnerships, some of which were successful, many of which were not. I’ve learned there is no right way to collaborate, but there is a wrong way.
Here are four tips to create and maintain successful partnerships:
1. Rally for a common purpose. One of the most difficult challenges with developing partnerships is managing conflicting interests. Everyone wants to know what’s in it for them, and rightfully so. Find the common purpose that benefits all organizations involved. That will lay the groundwork for a sustainable partnership.
One of the core values of the parks and recreation profession is social equity. All of the organizations involved in the Urban Lacrosse Initiative entered into a relationship with the common goal of increasing the diversity of lacrosse by providing resources to youth who otherwise did not have access to the sport. This common ground was the foundation of the clinic’s success.
2. Bring a diversity of voices to the table. Remember, it’s not always about diversity of people—it’s also about diversity of thought. Innovation is found in differences. There would be no need for partnerships and collaborations if we could accomplish everything in silos. Bring together organizations with different missions, visions, and values to add seasoning to what are otherwise bland, homogenous ideas.
While the lacrosse clinic and summer grant were effective in raising awareness of the need for sport equity, the success was in the assortment of voices involved and the unique resources they each provided.
3. Communicate with deliberation. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Beyond that, be intentional about how you communicate among partners and to the public. Managing expectations will always be a challenge when creating partnerships. Be honest, open, and ready to address concerns, even when they are out of your control.
While planning the lacrosse clinic, we encountered many questions about how we would ensure that participants would actually show up for the event. In planning and coordinating an event, attendance is always an unknown factor. We made that clear from the beginning, but we also had a plan to transport youth from multiple centers in order to mitigate transportation needs. We shared the details of that plan with partners and ensured that the clinic could accommodate two kids or 100.
4. Evaluate what works. Too often, the phrase, “We do it this way because this is how we’ve always done it,” is used. Before the work begins, determine the goals and how success will be measured. Once the work is completed, evaluate whether the goals were reached and if so, how they were reached. Take evaluation a step further by making necessary changes. That may mean breaking a tradition that has persisted for years without justification.
With the Urban Lacrosse Initiative being the first-ever partnership of its kind in Columbus, there was less pressure to immediately get everything right. After the summer clinic, partners reconvened to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what was next. As a result, a more extensive partnership between the city’s recreation and parks department and the Ohio Machine was formed, which helped sustain and grow the initiative.
The first step in creating successful, sustainable partnerships is simply creating them. Find where the opportunities are to collaborate with other organizations to exceed goals. Start the conversation. Gather the right people. Do the work.
Alesia Howard is the Communications and Marketing Specialist in Columbus Recreation and Parks Department in Ohio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.