Laying the groundwork for partnerships

It makes sense for science museums to take time to lay the internal institutional groundwork ahead of time, before the need arises to respond in a timely manner to external invitations to participate in partnerships, and also before taking a decision to actively recruit a partner with whom to build a partnership.

For science museum leaders, we think, the key to laying good groundwork is to remain focused on our organization’s central mission, and to build from that a framework for assessing the costs and benefits of potential partnerships before we pursue them.

If the mission of our museum is to help people of all ages appreciate and understand basic science and technology and be inspired to learn more, then the partnership we create should be designed to contribute to these goals. The focus should be on producing quality informal science education experiences for public and school audiences and on building greater capacity for achieving that goal. If we include in our mission the idea that we want our museum to also become an interpreter of new technologies and provide forums for adult deliberation on them, than our partnerships should reflect that choice. Likewise for a host of different mission based priorities, regarding our target audiences, our exhibit development needs, relations with donors and sponsors, the relative importance to us of pursuing innovations important to the larger ISE field, our focus on children, are institutional ambience, or our pedagogical philosophies.

One can tell if a partnership plan is going astray if it begins to feel to either party like a work for hire, a funding requirement, a public relations scheme, a marriage of convenience, or an institutional necessity. Anytime the scope of the project balloons beyond the budget and resources available, it is at risk for pulling its partners off their tether. Partnerships need be nurtured with care, and to have clearly defined goals, plans of action, timelines, accountability, realistic budgets, the right people for the job, and buy in at the highest levels. Simply put, they need to benefit the organizational partners and the intended audiences.

Proactive Assessment
It’s often helpful to conduct a proactive assessment to help our organization determine what kinds of partnership activities will best contribute to our institutional capacity to further our audience-based mission, while also meeting the needs of the partnering and funding organizations. Undertaking such an exercise can not only help our organization gear up to target and recruit university partners and funders, but can also help us prepare for the inevitable last minute partnership offer calls that you will from time to time receive.

Here are some clusters of questions worth addressing in assessing the potential value of an education outreach partnership:

Who are our audiences and what would we like to offer them in the years to come?
• What kinds of new content and subject areas will they find engaging and significant? Have we done conducted visitor studies to find out?
• Would they appreciate efforts to keep them in touch with current research in science and the latest technologies on an ongoing basis?
• Would they appreciate having more opportunities for face-to-face interactions with scientists in the museum?
• How could school groups and teachers benefit?
• Could the partnership help us attract new audiences or more diverse audiences?
• Do we want to focus on new exhibits, new programs, or new content for existing programs?
• Does our community have any particular circumstances that could be addressed through a university partnership, such as special community health needs or environmental issues, informed citizen deliberation on new municipal investments in energy production or conservation, a high high-school drop-out rate or the need for tech workforce training for laid-off factory workers?

Do we have existing staff, resources and infrastructure for working with university-based partners?
• Do we already have an infrastructure in place for interpreting and presenting exhibit and programs on current science and technology? If not, what will we need and what will it cost?
• Under whose jurisdiction will the management of the program be assigned? Who else will need to be consulted among stakeholders, management, and staff?
• What are the scheduling, facility, and budgeting implications?
• What synergisms might there be with other partners and other projects?
• Do we need additional resources or financial help with an existing program or exhibit plan for which a particular partner might be ideally suited?
• Is there a minimum commitment of resources or funding that we need to establish before we write a letter of commitment or support?

What might the partnership bring us that we don’t currently have enough of?
• Will the partnership bring us exciting new science to share with our audiences and connections with interesting and enthusiastic researchers who may have inspiring stories to share?
• Will it help us try out some innovations in our exhibits or programming?
• Will it help us push our research and evaluation agenda forward, and possibly contribute valuable knowledge to the field through meetings and publications/
• Will it help us reach some of our strategic goals – say for increasing our collaborations with local research centers, or for getting more involved with the academic community, or for reaching K-12 audiences?
• Will it bring us the expertise we need in new STEM areas we’d like to address with or audiences?
• What about onsite research? Could our visitors benefit from that kind of participation, if we can conduct it along IRB-approved human subject guidelines?
• Will it bring us volunteers who can interact successfully with our audiences?
• Is there funding involved that will help us keep current programs going and help us develop new ones?
• Will the funding come with a share of support for overhead costs that are increasing year by year?

What do our partners need and can we provide it?
There is no point in taking on a partnership commitment if we cannot provide what our partners really need, and we owe them an honest answer on this point. On the other hand, science museums that have decided they want to actively pursue partnerships with research centers would do well to perform another kind of proactive assessment: What do we have to offer prospective partners. That topic will be addressed in Section Three, when we tackle the idea of “marketing our services” to research organizations.

The take-home point of this section is that a little advance preparation can help us plan a collaboration that serves our audiences first and the educational mission foremost, that does not swing our organization out of its orbit of priorities, and that benefits all the stakeholders, while remaining within the means of the resources the funding provides. By building an evaluation component into the plan, we can lay the groundwork for assessing the program’s success and for improving future collaborations.

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