Strategies for Community-based Education: Developing Healthy Partnerships


by Pat Willis
Oregon State University 4-H Extension

C (Dakota)ommunity-based education is an approach to teaching and learning that connects learners to community and place. Educators who adopt this approach investigate local culture, natural features and resource issues, economic challenges and opportunities, and community governance. Students are often given the opportunity to participate in work that is valuable for the community, with community members having the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise with students. When community-based education is well implemented, the boundary between schools and communities becomes permeable, and students and community members benefit from the partnerships created. This article will share ideas and strategies to help community-based program leaders develop long-lasting and productive partnerships for implementing rewarding and impactful programs.

Partnerships for effective community–based education

There is too much to do. So much that needs to be cared for, brought to the public’s attention, built, maintained, monitored, and observed. There is no shortage of need. There is however a chronic shortage of resources. There is never enough staff, enough money, or enough time. But with a change in thinking, a shift in how resources are allocated, combined with good planning, all partners in a community-based program benefit.

Why people and programs need healthy partnerships is often more complex than who needs partnerships. There are the pragmatic needs for staffing, transportation, supplies, information and services, but there is also a human need of working together that must be addressed. Healthy partnerships can help accomplish many objectives by providing the needed resources to do work that enriches our communities. This is often work that helps make us feel a part of something larger than ourselves. These accomplishments can connect us in unexpected ways, to each other, and to our community. A community-based program with healthy partnerships can become healing and empowering.

What is a partnership?

For many of us involved in the work of helping students be actively engaged in their community, partnership is a word that is trotted out like a new pet pony or waved like a flag, yet partnerships often fall far short of what is envisioned or desired. A partnership is not just a cash donation, a one-time guest speaker, or a guided field trip. It starts with a conversation and it is participatory. All parties must benefit from the partnership, and at its best, society at large should be enriched. Healthy partnerships are long-lasting, goal driven, and must be enjoyable. 

Being prepared for partnerships

Perhaps the most critical skills we need to develop to create and maintain successful partnerships are being able to identify access points within the community. An access point can be as simple as a well asked question, a community need, or a community change. It may be born trying to solve a local problem or seeking information that doesn’t yet exist. An access point can be any project or place or set of societal or environmental conditions which allow or promote community engagement to meet a need.

As with any project and partnership, thoughtful planning is key. Plans are meant to be flexible, to be revised and to offer a road map to where you might go. Don’t let your plan control you, but use it as your guide. With a clear definition of goals it becomes much easier to see who you might need as a partner, what kinds of tools and equipment might be required, what kind of expertise will be needed, how much time the project might take to complete, and how much money may be needed. A well written plan or program proposal will serve you in many ways. It will save everyone time by clarifying the project outcomes. Doing your homework here will never be regretted.

Partnership Responsibilities

To make partnerships work for all sides in the relationship, we must assume specific responsibilities. These are two-way relationships and like all relationships they will require time and tending. To carry the metaphor further, like human relationships that span a range from a casual acquaintance to a full-out marriage, there will be different levels of commitment and richness with your various partners.

All your program partners will understand the need for reliability, dependability, and high quality work. No one wants to do a job over. Whatever your community based project is, i.e.: wetland restoration, planting of native species, developing a community oral history program, to food desert inventories, projects must be done well. There must be an understanding and commitment of the time and planning needed to the make a community-based project and partnership successful.  Because partnerships are a two way street, there must be communication, trust, and dependability.

Where to look for partners:

Partnership potentials are everywhere. The community is full of resources to help meet potential financial needs, labor needs, and human needs. The local school, service club, scout group, small or large business to the resource agency, planning agency, parks department, nature center–all need partners.  The key is being an active observer and listener. Get to know your potential partner; learn what needs or interests they have. Through the ever important use of skilled, open and honest two-way communication, partnerships will thrive.

Project Plan Outline

Another important part of beginning a program is the time spent early on in the planning phase. If you take the time to examine your hopes and limitations, to determine what your goals are and to commit those to paper, you will have come a very long way toward establishing something concrete to build the program on.

The proposal form (Figure 1) will help you to create a document you can use to approach school administrators, fellow staff members, and potential partners. It will help you clarify your group’s goals and priorities. Your proposal form, or “white paper” describes the vision and who should participate, the benefits of participation, and the benefits to the community. In addition, the project plan often contains language very useful in future grant proposals. Whether your project is simple or complex, you and your group will benefit from taking the time to ask yourselves the questions contained in the form.


Figure 1.
Project Plan

Project/Program Name/Title:
(The name of a project gives it a life—spending time on a catchy name is time well spent)

Community-based Program Lead Partner:
(This is usually your school/classroom, etc.)

Mission Statement:
(A mission statement should be 7-10 words in length and fit on t-shirt. This way everyone can remember it)

Program Impact
(What will be the impact of this program-what will be different after it is completed?)


Educational Goals and Objectives:

Brief Description of the Program:
(Describe how/what the project will benefit and why. What changes or improvements will be the end result?)


 Figure 2.
Program Specifics

Current leadership or project manager:

Expected/desired partners:

Expected audience:

Your expected role:

Steps for meeting program goals and objectives:

Specific needs (ideas, information, equipment, funds, etc.):

Expected outcomes (be as specific as possible):

Program timeline:

Contact information:



Community-base programming can be a transformative experience for both young and older citizens. It literally does take a community to do this kind of work in the community, so partnerships will soon become the norm for your program verses the exception. Healthy partnerships also take time to build and nurture. The key to success is the ability to start small, take time, expect some failures, learn from the mistakes, celebrate the small successes, and be persistent. Give yourself and your partners plenty of pats on the back, and your program will take you to horizons you may never had considered possible

Pat Willis is a long-time environmental educator currently working for OSU Extension 4-H in the Portland, Oregon area. Pat’s previous incarnations include stints at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and the Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro.