Transforming Schools. Together.® How Strategic Business Engagement Supports Public Education

Michael Haberman is President of the New York City-based nonprofit organization PENCIL, which creates innovative models of collaboration between business and public schools. After beginning his career as a journalist, Michael served in New York City government, was Director of Government and Community Relations at New York University, and worked on the rebuilding of Ground Zero. He writes for a variety of publications and speaks regularly at conferences and other forums on issues related to business engagement and volunteerism in public education, and serves as a member of the Briarcliff Manor Board of Education in Westchester, New York.

From a new set of national academic standards in the Common Core and a new teacher evaluation system, to a new mayor and the growing demands of the 21st century global economy, our schools are in a period of dramatic transition.

And as those changes take hold, so has a growing belief in the power of strategic business engagement in our schools to improve education and help realize the incredible potential of our children.

Since 1995, PENCIL has been a leader in this movement. We create and manage innovative, strategic, and impactful models of collaboration that help our children realize their incredible potential. In New York City, our model forges individual relationships between business and school leaders that leverage their collective talent and skills, empowering them to make an essential difference in local classrooms by working in the intersection of school needs and business expertise.

Working in key areas that are proven levers for improving schools and student learning, our partners foster stronger school cultures, engage families in their school communities, and prepare students for college and career success: last year, 9 of 10 principals engaged in our program say their PENCIL Partnership helped improve school culture and/or student performance.

But it’s not easy to build a partnership that has that degree of impact. After 19 years of guiding and shaping public-private partnerships, we’ve learned just how integral upfront planning and recalibration are to ensuring that our partners create real and lasting impact. Here’s a look at the factors that make our model so effective and are essential for every school-business collaboration:

Aligning Volunteer Skills with School Needs

Before partners begin to work together, they need to best understand how to align the business volunteer’s skills and good intentions with a school’s needs. This sounds obvious, but in too many instances volunteers will propose an idea out of the kindness of their hearts, and a principal will accept it rather than look a gift horse in the mouth.

In these cases, the business volunteer might offer a service that the school doesn’t really need. This can cause frustration for both parties, and volunteers to leave. And as this frustration continues to build, those real issues affecting the school go unaddressed. What begins out of a genuine desire to help people can end in a morass of hurt feelings and misunderstanding.

To avoid these scenarios, PENCIL works from the outset to strategically match business volunteers’ interests and expertise with specific school needs in key areas that are proven levers for improvement in school and student performance. And that’s something that all businesses and schools can do at the start of their partnerships, because it’s in those cases that we see the most progress, the greatest impact, and the most satisfied partners.

Setting Clear Expectations and Realistic Goals

Similarly, principals shouldn't expect—and volunteers shouldn't promise—more than they can offer. Most volunteers haven't been in a school for a very long time—they don’t know the issues, the regulations, or the funding realities that school leaders face.

Likewise, the school may not understand what constraints the business has to work with: its business and hiring cycle, or the time constraints and unpredictability faced by a business volunteer.

So businesses shouldn’t promise to be at the school every day to mentor students, raise money, and organize a school trip to the local museum—and schools should be wary of accepting these sorts of offers. 

Instead, both schools and businesses should commit to what they really can do—not what they wish they could do. These realistic goals make everyone feel successful, keep everyone engaged and motivated, and, over time, lead to those dramatic, inspiring results everyone is hoping for.

Measuring Impact 

Measurements abound in school and in business—firms ask themselves if they’re providing their customers with the level of service that they demand, and schools track student learning throughout the year. But when volunteers and schools come together, too often they forget about taking meaningful measurements.

That’s a tremendous loss: what's the point of donating our time and expertise if it's not having an impact on the school? Why divert principals' and teachers' attentions to volunteer programs if they aren't having an impact?

We help our Partners incorporate impact measurements into their collaborations from the outset. And rigorous evaluation has another benefit—we know that if we can show volunteers a tangible impact of their effort, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated. And if we're not having the desired impact, we can recalibrate our efforts.

Ongoing and Open Communication

When volunteers join a school community, it's the creation of a relationship. And just like any relationship, communication is a key to success. Both parties need to commit to maintaining regular and honest communication with each other, whether by email, phone, or in person.

Make no mistake: communication isn’t just talking. It’s listening and assessing, too. In some cases when the program isn’t working, it’s about being open to the truth and determining what changes should be made.

Providing Comprehensive Support

While school-business partners who adhere to the above guidelines can produce great results, the reality is that schools and businesses are two very different worlds. Having an expert intermediary ‘translate’ the realities of each and help both partners understand each other’s challenges—and the ways to address them—is an asset that maximizes school-business collaborations and their impact.

Business and school leaders who work together through PENCIL have the advantage of a dedicated Partnership Coordinator, who helps them structure their relationship; shares best practices, case studies and other successful models of collaboration; and keeps them focused and on track. Our research shows that a Partnership Coordinator’s involvement can often increase a partnership’s impact on a school.

Here’s just one example of one of those impactful partnerships: PENCIL Partner and supporter Deloitte works with eleven schools across New York City, including the Community High School for Social Justice. There, Zain Pasha, an Analyst at Deloitte Consulting, and a team of his colleagues help students develop their college, career, and technology skills, increasing their social capital along the way. Zain discussed how a second-grade teacher inspired him to pursue technology—and how he’s motivated to give back because of her:

Developing a strategic skills-based volunteer program that is in line with the school’s goals and objectives is not always easy. But it's well worth the effort. And beyond having impact in individual schools, business and school leaders’ work together forges innovative new models of collaboration that have the power to benefit not just the children in their schools, but countless children everywhere.

For more information on PENCIL, visit PENCIL.org.



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