Blog: Susan Westhoff

It's owls and eagles and vultures (oh my!) at the Leslie Science & Nature Center in Ann Arbor. LSNC Executive Director Susan Westhoff writes on transformation at the individual and organizational level and how to measure the intangibles of success.

Partnerships Take Flight

On my initial re-entry to Ann Arbor, I was inundated with the many opportunities for families with little children.  Our area is truly blessed with a wealth of museums, play places, stores with story hours and craft times, festivals, fairs and the list just goes on and on.  At first I was quite overwhelmed and immediately thought about how to help Leslie Science & Nature Center stand out and gain visibility. As a geographically hidden spot on the North Campus of U-M, we often hear that people don't know we are there or wish they had found us sooner, so how do I begin to raise the visibility within the sea of competition?

And then I had some meetings with local non-profit executive directors, and I was both surprised and relieved that they had similar philosophies to my own.  Philosophies of collaboration instead of competition.  We can choose to view one another as complementary organizations, working together when it makes sense and supporting one another, or we can view each other as competition and be divisive of our audience.

Partnerships leading to collaboration have proven to be the key to most of the successful programs I have run.  No matter the subject matter, a true collaboration has an immense amount of power both in impact of the program, and in the type and quantity of press and support you will receive.

The key, in the end, is to be sure you are starting your partnership with a true understanding of one another's needs and desired outcomes.  A partnership that does not have clear goals will fall flat based on assumptions. I have found time and time again, if you don't take the time to fully explain and discuss your goals and intentions, or don't know what they are, the other person or organization will create them for you.

At a previous job, I was in the interesting position of entering a partnership mid-stream.  We had committed to starting a community choir, which was a bit off from our core mission as an organization.  The choir was quite successful based on participation, but took a huge amount of resources both in staff time and money.  The community loved the program, but it did not really do much in return for us as an organization.  We did not gain new attendees or audience members; we were not training people to the level that they would join our professional singing chorus; we did not even have consistently great press from our work within this community.  And while we were encouraging music lovers at large, there were never any clear goals set out for how long we would implement the program, what would "Success" look like for the program, and how were both the organization and community benefiting from this partnership.  As you can imagine, entering in the midst of this mire was a challenging position.  In the end, we morphed the choir and tried a few variations on a theme, and eventually it disbanded, leaving several key community members quite disheartened.  If there had been an initial goal of collaborating for a set number of years, or accomplishing a set task, or even an understanding of mutual goals with a timeframe for mutual evaluation...any of these things would have allowed for a much easier dialogue and decision as to the future of that particular project.

The LSNC is currently in the midst of developing several amazing partnerships with some local schools, community groups and hospitals.  As the new executive director, I am thrilled to pull on my past experiences, having learned from both successes and mistakes, to develop very exciting and innovative collaborations with Mott Children's Hospital, the Ann Arbor VA Hospital, the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, and the Ann Arbor District Library, among others.

As an organization, we have quite a long history of healthy and vibrant collaborations, including the partnership that started our raptor program with the River Raisin Raptor Center.  Our initial partnership with the RRRC began when we adopted their education program in 2008.  At that time, RRRC held the permits for birds and handled the initial rehabilitation and training, and we then housed them on site and were able to utilize them for educational programs.  This relationship was wonderful for both organizations, as the founder of RRRC, Dody Wyman, was looking to somewhat retire; and we had both the professional expertise, space and need for such amazing educational animals.  Since then we have continued a wonderful partnership, utilizing Dody's expertise on a regular basis, and slowly taking on increased responsibility for the birds.  We now hold the full permits for our raptors, and have added staff to support an increased demand for their presence at local schools, community events, corporate and sporting events.  In the end, both the LSNC and the River Raisin Raptor Center saw the successful end results they set out to achieve at the start of their collaboration.  And that is the greatest indicator of a successful partnership!