Principles of good stewardship


In Section Two of this guide we have been exploring some essential characteristics of good partnerships and how science museums can best prepare themselves to respond to partnership opportunities. In Section Three we will go over ways that museums can be more proactive in marketing themselves, recruiting potential partners, and developing grant proposals. These final two chapters of Section Two will explore what it takes to manage and maintain healthy and rewarding partnerships.

Institutional partnerships require much of the same care and nourishment as other kinds of partnerships; they’re just more complex because they involve multiple personal and organizational agendas.

An essential aspect of laying the groundwork for new partnerships is gaining an understanding of some of the principles of effective stewardship, including partnership management and maintenance. Some of these principles are little more than common sense, some of them are applicable to all kinds of partnerships, personal as well as organizational, and some of them come specifically from the author’s personal experience and from the experiences of many of her colleagues in carrying out science museum – research center collaborations. We can also benefit from a variety of research and evaluation efforts have produced specific understandings of what tends to work and not work in science museum partnerships. [Some of these are listed in the Resource section]. Our overall goal is to create a partnership which is able to effectively accomplish important goals that neither partner could accomplish on their own, and to do so within a collaborative atmosphere of trust, confidence, and creativity.

The partners are clear about their common goals and respective roles and about each other’s expectations. These expectations, as well as the project deliverables should be clearly defined in writing in order to keep a record and facilitate institutional memory in times of transition. Some grant-funded sub-award and collaborative projects are required to have these signed, sealed and delivered before funding begins. Less formal partnerships can often benefit from drafting a Letter of Agreement (LOA) or a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the parties, even if no contract or financial commitment is on the table. One of the reasons for these is to ensure that there is explicit “buy-in” at the highest level of each of the partnering organizations. Since the actively engaged staff are often subject to higher level organizational priorities or changes due to turnover of personnel, it is important to ensure that partnership agreements will be respected and maintain continuity for the period of time for which they were established. Such agreements can help set the terms of the partnership, including the major goals and activities. They can provide important scaffolding elements, such as a timeline and plan of action with recognizable milestones. They should also include an explicit understanding of who will serve as the designated liaison on each side of the handshake.

The partners have designated liaisons. Research has shown that one of the biggest frustrations for partnering organizations occurs when there is confusion over who has authority to make decisions on each side and who should be the point person on collaborative efforts. In surveys of researchers who had worked with science museums, this issue came up frequently. [RK&A 2006.] The designated liaisons should be named in the written documents and they should be updated if there is turnover. Even when the financial and grants management managers need to confer directly over reporting and compliance issues, the designated liaisons should be included in the loop.

The designated institutional liaisons keep in touch regularly and feel free to pick up the phone or shoot each other emails if there are questions or concerns. Periodic face-to-face meetings with key players are probably the most important factor in maintaining healthy partnership relationships. Emails, phone conversations, collaborative wiki sites, and regular reporting can help maintain relationships and assist in their operations, but nothing beats face-to-face meetings in nurturing the kinds of bonds that lead to a true sense of collaboration. Matching levels of connection is also important, in terms of responsibility, authority and experience. It is not wise to have a volunteer coordinator fresh out of college be the liaison to a university PI.

The partners do what they say they are going to do. This is a no-brainer, but accountability is an essential part of the responsibility to one’s partner. If circumstances force a change in plans, then the partner should be notified and consulted on alternatives. Usually the partners also need to coordinate their compliance with funding agency and institutional requirements. Typically, semi-annual or annual reports need to be put into a specific format and to go through a number of steps before publication and submittal. Partners should give each other plenty of advance notice and also comply with each other’s reporting schedules in a timely manner. Grant related reporting and site visits and reverse site visits should be posted in everyone’s calendar. Science museums on sub-awards from research centers should be prepared to help their partner demonstrate to the awarding agency the impact of their efforts, including the numbers of people reached, demographic data, evaluation results, and so forth.

Partners share names, credits and logos. Partners need to share with each other how they wish their organization and key players to be referred to and credited in documents, press releases, websites, marketing materials, and publications. They need to have on hand a high-resolution copy of the partner’s logos. They also need to be aware of specific funding agency requirements, including the use of agency logos, grant numbers, credits, and content disclaimers. It is a matter of courtesy that press releases, signage, marketing materials, and scholarly articles be offered for reviewed by partners ahead of publication.

Calendar awareness is critical. University and science museum calendars are typically quite different. Science museums tend to be busiest on weekends, holidays, and in the summer, precisely the times when universities tend to lose faculty and students to vacation and travel. Academic schedules are decisive factors in planning collaborative efforts. Do not expect to be able to advance a joint project or proposal during the month of August, when many university researchers take vacation breaks. Other summer months may be slow as well. Even different schools at a single university may have different semester schedules and holiday breaks; these can determine whether researchers and their graduate students are available when you would most like their help – for instance, if you want to plan face-to-face programs with researchers when your museum is full of families on holiday.

Time management and other forms of courtesy. Time management is a critical area for faculty researchers as well as for science museum staff. Research faculty tend to have complicated and irregular schedules teaching courses, advising, conducting laboratory research, meeting faculty commitments, attending scientific meetings, writing and reviewing grants, and completing administrative tasks. In general, researchers want to contribute their expertise; they do not want to get involved in organizational, operational, or administrative details of education outreach initiatives. In all cases, it is beneficial to be clear at the start what roles the research partners would prefer or prefer not to assume. When researchers have committed to work with your science museum on a public engagement project, respect their time, and make it as easy for them as you can. Work with their administrative assistants or their education outreach directors. Provide directions, parking, badges, escorts. Graduate students can be more flexible with their time. One thing they will deeply appreciate is access to food, vouchers for the cafeteria, places to safely stash their backpacks and laptops, and so forth.

A little appreciation goes a long way. The researchers with whom you collaborate are probably going well out of their way to make their commitment to education outreach a serious one. It can be time-consuming and even a little stressful if it means venturing into areas beyond one’s comfort zone. Give back to the researchers you work with. Recognize their efforts. Write thank you notes. Invite them to museum events, offer to involve their students or provide opportunities for them to exercise their education and outreach skills. Encourage your partners to link to your website and provide them with photos and videos of your activities for them to post on theirs. Share positive visitor comments and research and evaluation data with them. And don’t forget to celebrate both minor and major accomplishments along the way.

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