Today, too many students in America are leaving high school not fully prepared for employment or college. At the same time, businesses in countless industries need a skilled workforce that can fill open positions. When young people develop core academic capacities and acquire direct work experience, they gain the skills and behaviors to help them succeed – making them more likely to graduate high school on time and continue on to college or a career.

To accelerate systemic change, philanthropy can’t just keep supporting status quo approaches to help our youth transition to adulthood – they must support collaborative efforts that bring together partners from every sector. Funders are focused on investing in solutions now more than ever. These leaders are starting to understand that real change requires sustainable, systemic solutions. And they are starting to understand that you need everyone at the table in order to design and execute long-term solutions because multiple sectors have to contribute to the solution. The concept of collaboration and cross-sector partnerships has become top priority because people are understanding that the challenges we face are rarely, if ever, siloed or disconnected from each other, so our response to those challenges can’t be, either.

Focused on the Greater Washington region, Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) incubates and supports collaborative initiatives because we know that many young people have too many problems for any one group to solve in isolation. We challenge ourselves and our colleagues to create partnerships that will have bigger impact than individual efforts.

VPP’s Ready for Work initiative is a place-based, cross-sector collaboration in Prince George’s County, MD that was designed to help young people successfully transition to adulthood with the academic, technical, and life skills they need to be career- and college-ready. The effort is a partnership between VPP and Prince George’s County Council, the Office of the County Executive, Prince George’s County Public Schools, local business leaders, philanthropy, and several nonprofit organizations. The initiative operates at the school district level and within three high schools in the county – Suitland, Oxon Hill, and High Point. Across our three partner high schools more than 3,000 students are served by Ready for Work every year. At Suitland, 100 percent of the nursing and construction graduates passed their certification tests and graduated in 2018 with an industry-recognized credential through after-school tutoring supported by VPP.

K-12 Initiatives: What Investors Should Look For

Through this work, VPP has learned several lessons about effective collaboration that funders should contemplate when considering this approach.

The partners that are engaged in Ready for Work include nonprofits and the school system itself – they have been involved at every stage of the design and implementation of this initiative. This cross-sector collaboration approach can fit any organization that is on a growth trajectory. When designing a collaborative effort, we look for organizations that have the potential to serve more youth, have greater outcomes, and be systems disruptors. This is a critical element of any successful collaborative effort – each organization needs to have a baseline level of capacity in order to devote the time and expertise required. Many nonprofits aren’t at that point yet, so funders need to support capacity-building efforts to help them gain the capacity to collaborate.

Some of the most important contributing factors of a successful collaborative – that come with their own challenges – are communication, a supportive backbone, and clarity of goals. Without these three, participants are unlikely to be on the same page about where the collaboration is trying to go and how it will get there.

Communication is critical. Often, collaboration requires engagement at several levels from each organization. In VPP’s collaborative efforts, we work with leadership and direct service personnel. You have to keep everyone informed and manage each layer of the partnership.

This work is impossible without someone serving a backbone function – someone (or an organization) has to coordinate the work. The backbone has to have everyone’s trust to effectively communicate across all sectors, navigating political, financial, and other channels in order to facilitate, lead the work, coordinate, and resolve conflict. That trust is built steadily over time through open and honest communication about priorities, challenges, interests and concerns. For Ready for Work, VPP serves as that backbone.

It’s also critical to define and understand what collaboration means for each specific effort. There are many varieties of collaboration that range from occasional coordination (like signing on to letters or hosting the occasional summit) to the deep, long-term forms of collaboration, like Ready for Work. VPP’s collaborative work can be defined as high-risk, high-reward for all partners. We all rise and fall together. It’s like Jenga – if you pull one block out, everyone can suffer or the whole thing could fall apart. But, if you add a piece or fortify a section, the entire effort is stronger.

The philanthropy community is dealing with scarce resources and funders can have greater impact by leveraging their dollars rather than supporting isolated efforts. When done right, collaboration can have a transformative impact on the success of any effort.


Original contribution by Carol Thompson Cole, President and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners.