THE MIDLANDS LITERACY INITIATIVE AND ITS PARTNERS
Agencies like the United Way must be judicious in spending limited resources and able to see the impact of their work in the community. Administrators say it is important to define the roles of partners, identify what is expected, and do what is expected.
MLI partners and board members emphasize that strong leadership is important to their success, but that leadership must extend beyond the board chair; it's critical at every level. MLI's working committees, for example, must be given the autonomy to respond to changes and take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Staff leadership is also crucial. The MLI learned that it needed a dedicated staff person to keep things going, someone who can "own" the partnership and the initiative.
Working on specific, concrete tasks and meeting goals is important, according to MLI board members. Developing the curriculum, for example, brought the team together; they had a specific task and a product to show for their efforts. They also learned that it is more important to sustain momentum than to aim for getting everything exactly right the first time.
Concentrating on a common goal, despite differences among the partners, and honoring commitments are vital. If one partner does not follow through or does only the bare minimum, other partners learn not to trust that group and look for new partners. And as United Way President Cary Smith says, "If people get too territorial, roads get built around them." United Way and the MLI have learned to see partnerships as a continuum, a range of engagement with each organization. They try to take advantage of what each organization and person does best and to find new partners when expectations are not met.
CAN YOU FIRE A VOLUNTEER?
A United Way administrator posed this question, adding, "Can you fire a partner?" He answered it himself: “Sometimes you have to.”
Sometimes it has been necessary for the MLI to disengage from a partnership. Some partners rarely completed tasks as promised. MLI board meetings include discussions of all projects completed or in progress. If a member has not followed through on a project, the entire board discusses it openly. No person or organization has ever been asked to leave the board, but, when necessary, the MLI has found ways to disengage the partner, such as excluding that organization from working groups, subcommittees, or events. These group norms help apply pressure to follow through on promises.
Collaboration between the adult education providers and the business community was not smooth at first. “Old enemies were in the room,” said one MLI member, and some partners came to the early meetings mainly to protect their turf. They argued and disagreed, but they kept trying to understand each other. MLI partners worked to build a common vocabulary and develop trust. They say they were able to cross some of their organizational boundaries because the United Way provided a neutral forum. Solving problems together helped them understand more about each other, as did a rule of conduct to “pick on the idea, not the person.”
Funding is first on the list of many MLI partners when asked about their challenges. Deep funding cuts in school districts have forced staff reductions. For example, New Horizon depends on Richland One for instructors, but the district now requires that classes maintain participation of at least fifteen students, or they will cancel the class. This is a high number of students for a rural area like Hopkins and difficult for them to maintain.
Maintaining the quality of instruction is also a continuing challenge. When the MLI began its first pilot test of the new workplace curriculum, they quickly realized that even experienced adult education instructors were not always prepared to teach in that setting. With the help of the state Workforce Resource Center, the MLI developed a training course for workplace skills instructors. The fifteen-hour training included principles of contextual teaching and learning, instructional strategies, and tours of manufacturing plants. MLI members found the training program successful—and it was adapted for statewide use—but they say that finding and keeping qualified instructors remains difficult.