Platform Partnerships

May 7, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

Those of us whose work focuses on connecting higher education with the needs and opportunities in communities spend a lot of time thinking about partnerships. We don’t get anything done except through partnerships. If faculty and staff ever thought colleges and universities could act unilaterally for community benefit, that view is, fortunately, mostly extinct. There is a consensus that universities need to work with partners who possess community knowledge, relationships, and the credibility that comes with both.

A lot has been written about university:community partnerships. The bulk of published work on partnerships focuses on what might be thought of as desirable partnership characteristics or principles of partnership. For example, partnerships should be characterized by reciprocity, mutual respect, or transparency. There is less work on the infrastructure of partnerships: the nuts-and-bolts characteristics that enable partnerships to achieve their goals while remaining true to their principles. 

A recent exception is a piece by Morrell, Sorenson, and Howarth on the Charlotte Action Research Project (CHARP) published in the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement. The authors argue that the use of graduate students as staff for the partnership allowed CHARP to overcome typical logistical barriers and to address “wicked” problems. The authors, in other words, show the value of a specific infrastructural element.

In order to facilitate deeper thinking about building effective partnerships, I want to provide a term for a broader category of partnership infrastructure. The term I suggest we use is platform partnerships. Think of a platform in the sense of a computer operating system. The point of the operating system is to provide some infrastructure to which innovative applications can be connected. The infrastructure is in the background; the apps are the point. I pull out my iPhone not to interact with the operating system directly but to check email, listen to a podcast, or send a text. I want the apps. The platform makes the apps possible.

A platform partnership consists of the infrastructure necessary for building creative and effective shared activities in pursuit of mutual goals. For example, a university might create a platform partnership with a school. The platform could consist of various elements: regular meetings among key personnel, staff support for shared projects, transportation linking the campus to the school. Once that infrastructure is in place, the opportunities for innovation are endless.

When I led civic engagement efforts at Rutgers-Camden, we built such a platform partnership with three public schools in the neighborhood adjacent to the campus. The infrastructure for the partnership consisted of regular meetings bringing together Rutgers personnel with principals, a program coordinator employed by the university, a donated bus that made several loops between the campus and all three schools each afternoon, and security personnel provided by the school district during the after-school hours. On that platform, we built an afterschool program for which we subsequently secured external funding, a student-led ESL program for parents of children in the schools, many arts projects, some research projects, and several academic projects connecting students in Engaged Civic Learning courses at the university with students in the schools.

There are both practical and ethical advantages to platform partnerships. The central practical advantage is that such partnerships lower the barriers to entry for participants from the university and the community partner. When the operating system works well, it is relatively easy to write apps for it. Without the operating system, the app writers have nowhere to put their creativity. If faculty members can count on some staff support, someone to introduce them, and transportation for their students, they are much more likely to think about what they might be able to do through a partnership. The same is true for community partners.

The ethical advantage is that principles such as mutual respect, shared benefit, and equal power are more easily realized in the context of a stable and sustainable partnership than they are through one-time projects. In a platform partnership, participants expect to be engaged with each other over time, which means that each partner can expect that while certain activities may provide more benefits to them, other activities will provide more benefits to their partner. Those differences can be discussed openly and efforts can be made to strike the right balance over time.

To be clear, I did not invent partnerships of this kind. I learned how to execute them from others who have been doing this work for decades. It’s possible that I am the coiner of the term platform partnerships. If I am, I am glad to share it with others who might find it either a useful way to describe their existing partnerships or an aspirational model.

What do you think of the term? Are there better alternatives? Do you have examples of partnerships that fit the category as I have described it—or those that don’t and might lead us to further refine our vocabulary? Feel free to discuss in the comments section.