Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Partnerships Can Be Sticky Business

Lessons learned in establishing a partnership.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist
4-H and Youth Program Development
Southeast Area Extension Office - Chanute Kansas

Partnerships. Some would liken them to cuddly Cabbage Patch kids we ought to enthusiastically embrace, as if adopting some long-lost child. One of our attempts, however, to develop a cooperative partnership between several agencies in one southeast Kansas county in many ways resembled an entanglement with an octopus. Just about the time we thought we had one "arm"under control, another would surprise us from behind. Eventually, all control was lost, and not even the octopus was in charge. Perhaps our experience can provide some lessons-and cautions-for others.

Kansas Economy

In early 1984, county and area Extension staff conceived a plan to initiate a partnership between several groups to address the issue of high unemployment among area youth. Southeast Kansas, like other parts of the Midwest farm belt, has been particularly hard hit by the crises in agriculture. During 1985, 13 Kansas banks failed-the most since the depression and the formation of the FDIC. Five of those bank failures were in southeast Kansas.

The "ripple-effect" from these closings has, in turn, forced a number of businesses into foreclosure, with predictable consequences. In Neosho County, for example, unemployment is in two digits and remains nearly double the state level. Almost every month, another business closes in Chanute, the county's largest town (pop. 10,000). The sour economy has even forced some of our "high-tech" businesses to lay off a substantial number of personnel in recent months.

Job Obstacles for Youth

As in other rural counties, employment opportunities for young people in Neosho County, even in good economic times, are already quite limited. Teens confront a number of obstacles when they try to find part-time and summer employment. Transportation is often a major problem because the travel distances to available jobs are often substantial. Legal restrictions prohibit young people from working in many of our large industries in which machinery is involved.

In addition, many of our town businesses are small family operations and employ few outside people. Moreover, unlike larger metropolitan areas, there aren't many fast-food outlets where young people can earn additional income for themselves or supplement the family's farm income.

Finally, given the choice, many employers prefer to hire unemployed adults over young people because of the adults' greater need, maturity, reliability, previous work experience, and ability to work more hours. In the competition for jobs with adults, young people in rural counties usually lose out. Thus, if teens hope to increase their employment prospects, they desperately need to improve their job-finding skills.

A survey of Chanute employers revealed that most young people didn't know how to prepare themselves to find a job. Many businesspeople commented that young people came in to apply for jobs, but didn't have a ready list of references, were dressed poorly, didn't know how to fill out an application, or in some cases didn't know what kind of job they were applying for. Employers told us that young people needed help to improve their employment prospects.

Reasons for Partnership

From the outset, we felt that a partnership would be the most advantageous approach. Our goal was to help organize, plan, and implement a youth employment education workshop to put county youth in direct contact with the major youth employers and job counselors of the area. As we envisioned it, we would help form a cooperative partnership between Extension 4-H and community development staff, local businesspeople, Job Service personnel, professional educators, and members of the Chamber of Commerce. Such a partnership would help combine talents and resources to meet what was an obvious need-employment education.


From this cooperative effort, we hoped to achieve several specific objectives. First, we wanted to help youth improve their skills at finding employment. Second, we hoped to put prospective employers in direct contact with prospective employees and thereby facilitate the employment of county youth. Third, we hoped to cement a long-term partnership between these various agencies for issues of common interest in the future. We wanted the partnership to endure long after the jobs education workshop

Finally, we hoped that some of these employment skills taught to rural youth would rub off on parents who were threatened with losing their farms. Like the early beginnings of 4-H, we hoped to educate adults through youth. Many adults on farms have never had to apply or interview for a job, and they would need the same skills to improve their employability.

Over the next 10 months, we worked to establish a viable partnership between a variety of groups that might share our concern about youth and adult unemployment. Each of these groups had valuable skills to contribute:

  • Job Service was a professional job counseling and referral agency of the state, which had access to employment education literature that could provide help with filling out the applications, preparing for the interview, locating the right job, and knowing where potential openings existed.
  • School guidance counselors had daily contacts with teens, could encourage them to attend the workshop, and had the professional expertise to lead small-group sessions to advise youth on how to prepare for their job search.
  • Chanute Area Chamber of Commerce could lend a measure of prestige and legitimacy to the employment education workshop and could help enlist the support of local businesspeople. County and area Extension staff had the time, resources, and network to coordinate all these efforts and help with the details of organizing an educational workshop.
  • Obviously, local businesspeople could provide potential employment, but more importantly, could speak directly to teens about the issues that concerned them: how to apply, what skills were needed in each business, pay scales, expectations on the job, how to interview, benefits, and career opportunities.

Partnership Problems

Our attempt to forge this partnership into a working alliance, however, wasn't without problems. Since many of these groups were unaccustomed to working with Extension, a variety of suspicions and jealousies soon surfaced. Job Service staff felt particularly threatened by our initiative and accused us of trying to "do their job." Unfamiliar with 4-H and Extension, the Chamber of Commerce questioned why we would be concerned with youth employment. The old stereotype of 4-H as "cows and cooking" clubs surfaced, and some people wondered where employment education fit into this (albeit distorted) nicture.

Finally, a month before the workshop, disagreements among the partners flared and nearly killed the entire project. School officials, feeling caught in the middle, refused to promote the workshop until the controversy was resolved. Some businesspeople threatened to withdraw completely. Eventually, several high-level meetings were held to iron out the various differences. The workshop went ahead as planned.

But, the weeks of back-biting and division among the partners had taken their toll. Sadly, the real losers were county teens. Between all the petty jealousies and derision, the partnership lost sight of its original audience and goals. The mutual suspicions, distrust, and allegations kept us all from doing the promotion necessary to ensure top attendance. We didn't present a unified effort to the community . . . and it hurt. Only after the workshop, when these problems became obvious to all involved, did we really begin to develop a true partnership-a partnership that will indeed be working again next year.

Partnership Disadvantages

From our experience, then, what were some of the disadvantages of forming a partnership?

  • Some partners were jealous of one another and were too concerned about who would "get credit" for the workshop. At times, who got to count the participants became more important than carrying out the educational program.
  • Program delivery suffered from the divisiveness and resistance. A uniform front was difficult to maintain and program promotion suffered.
  • Implementation of the various steps was slow because so many people had to give their approval. Not all participants appreciated the advance deadlines that had to be met to accomplish certain steps on time.
  • When a crisis occurred, our cooperative partnership fractured. No one agency was clearly given the leadership role, so no one was able to take charge during a crisis. The parts were greater than the whole.

Lessons Learned

In retrospect, what lessons did our experience in trying to establish a partnership teach us?

  1. Remember Murphy's Law. Expect setbacks, delays, and last-minute obstacles and plan accordingly. Start your planning process a year in advance of your expected implementation date. Don't be shocked or surprised that things aren't running smoothly.
  2. Be Flexible, But Not Limp. Expect changes in the original plan and learn how to adapt to new and different ideas. Remain true to the original goals without appearing rigid. Learn to be flexible without bending over backwards to accommodate others.
  3. Build Ownership. A partnership has to equally involve all partners to be successful, and all must feel equally important to the total effort. If your program is to be successful, each group needs to feel responsible. Involve all groups at the outset in the program-planning process.
  4. Establish Leadership. At the same time, one group needs to be in charge. If your group is given the leadership role, make sure all participants agree and are informed of what that will mean. To facilitate minor decision making, one group has to have the authority to make some decisions on its own. Tread softly and forget the big stick.
  5. Evaluate. Without a lot of hard work, don't assume that a partnership will automatically ensure better service for clientele. In our experience, the benefits of a partnership may not be evident until all partners have learned to cooperate and have dispensed with the petty jealousies. Evaluate your cooperative effort each year to see if you're meeting your goals. If not, make the necessary changes.
  6. Hang in There. Despite it all-the headaches, the heartbreaks, and the outtakes-it's worth it. Keep on plugging away to make your partnership work. Maintain a sense of optimism, even though others may be accentuating the negative.


If we're going to try to effectively meet the real needs of today's youth, we've got to cooperate with other agencies and brave the hassles and obstacles. You'll learn much more by making the effort to network with other agencies than if you wait until the moment seems "right" to do it on your own. Go ahead-dive right in and wrestle that octopus.