Joey Li can still remember the moment in middle school when he developed an interest in chemistry. “We had a career day and someone came in to make liquid nitrogen ice cream for us,” Li recalls. From that moment, Li was sold on science.
Decades later, the tables are turned. Li — now a product manager in the Bay Area — is the professional who is visiting classrooms to share his love of science with students. And it’s the first- and second-graders he’s interacting with who are transformed by the experience.
“At the end of the year, it’s touching to see the handwritten thank you letters,” Li explains. “You realize, ‘Oh, that kid who didn’t seem to listen actually enjoyed our lessons.’”
Li isn’t alone in helping with hands-on science lessons in the classroom. Instead, he is part of a much larger, three-way partnership between KLA — the semiconductor equipment company where Li got his start — the nonprofit organization Science is Elementary and the Alexander Rose Elementary School, a public school in Milpitas, Calif.
It’s a relationship that Li describes as a “win-win-win,” and it’s one that offers valuable lessons for how companies can work together with nonprofits to serve the community while fostering employee engagement. Here are five tips for companies building partnerships with nonprofits, based on interviews with stakeholders at KLA, SiE and Rose Elementary.
Tip 1: Let the partnership vision emerge from the employees. But back that vision up with company resources and leadership. Employees need to feel invested in the cause that they’re supporting, but companies can provide vital infrastructure — whether it’s coordination of volunteers, funding, promotion, or assistance with strategy — that strengthens the partnership.
KLA’s partnership with SiE began as a series of organic conversations in the breakroom. Li had been volunteering with SiE at a local school on his own, and his colleagues began inquiring about what he was up to. “I’d bring back the materials [from SiE sessions], such as Popsicle stick bridges. And people would ask me about that,” Li recalls. Intrigued, Li’s colleagues began to tag along to volunteer with SiE in classrooms.
The partnership really took off when Li took the project to KLA’s leadership. He began recruiting from among the company’s thousands of employees. KLA leaders put Li in touch with the KLA Foundation, and together with SiE, they began to design a more formal program to leverage KLA resources to benefit Rose Elementary. That meant creating an operational plan to determine which grades would be served and how many volunteers would be involved.
The KLA Foundation provided essential support and committed funding for the project through a grant to SiE. Li describes that money as “a general hunting license” that enabled SiE to begin working at Rose Elementary while demonstrating to employees that KLA was fully behind them. The KLA Foundation continues to fund this partnership and has since significantly increased its support for Science is Elementary.
Tip 2: Make sure the partner organization is a good fit for your company’s priorities. That means thinking strategically about geographic location, values and priorities. Companies shouldn’t try to reorient their priorities to accommodate all employee requests to develop partnerships with nonprofits. But having a clear sense of what factors are most important when deciding to invest in a partnership will go a long way toward making the partnership both effective and successful.
Partnering with SiE was a no-brainer for the KLA Foundation. SiE aligns with one of the foundation’s existing funding priorities: STEM education. It reflects the foundation’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion because KLA employees are volunteering at a Title I school, a designation applied to schools that disproportionately serve students that qualify for free and reduced lunch. KLA employees were already engaged with SiE before the formal partnership began. And it is local, with volunteering occurring in the hometown of KLA’s corporate headquarters.
As Jen McCollum, KLA Foundation lead put it, “Science is Elementary fits into so many different buckets” that the foundation prioritizes and focuses its investments.
Tip 3: Recognize and honor different motivations that compel employee involvement. Provide opportunities for employees to act on those motivations through the partnership. Meeting employees where they are and working with them to cultivate opportunities to realize their interests can strengthen a partnership — and employee engagement.
When Li first began recruiting volunteers, he realized that different employees came with different reasons for volunteering. Some were like him and had an early encounter with hands-on science that changed their future career trajectory. Others had elementary schoolchildren of their own and wanted to be involved in helping students learn. Some employees wanted an opportunity to bond with their colleagues outside of work.
But Li noticed a common denominator among all the volunteers. “We [all] cared about the cause and we liked representing our company within the local community,” Li says. “And, at every company, I expect that there is a certain percentage of people who want to represent their company within the community. You just have to find them.”
KLA is following that advice. Recently, McCollum of the KLA Foundation was approached by the leaders of Konexión — the company’s Latinx employee resource group — about volunteering with SiE. McCollum recalls that the reason for Konexión’s inquiry was personal. “The woman on the committee said, ‘It’s important for me that young girls who are considering science see someone who looks like them in the field.’” McCollum says that providing opportunities for employees to act on those convictions shows that the company recognizes them as people and shares their values.
Tip 4: Get consistent buy-in and participation from volunteers, with a champion to lead the effort. That’s important for maximizing the impact that you’re having and spurs deeper employee engagement. One-off volunteer engagements are fine as team-building activities, but building a true partnership that makes a tangible impact in the community requires consistency, expertise and commitment.
Nanci Pass, principal at Alexander Rose Elementary School, explains the impact of having a dedicated cadre of KLA volunteers who can be counted upon to show up to classrooms each month. “When we were seeing the same volunteer every month, then the kids really did get to build a relationship,” Pass says. She adds that the trust that students established with volunteers was critical to students’ learning.
This relationship-building with professional scientists is particularly important at Rose Elementary. “Many of our kids come from families where they don’t have exposure to those career opportunities,” Pass explains. The KLA-SiE partnership at Rose Elementary changed that, with students now able to imagine themselves one day becoming scientists or engineers.
The school has invited KLA volunteers to serve on career panels, and KLA volunteers have shown up to cheer on students during walk-a-thons. The consistency of the relationship has also allowed for conversations during chance encounters around town. The result is that employees feel more engaged in their communities and in KLA. Meanwhile, the school community has broadened to include the KLA volunteers.
Tip 5: Find a partner who’s willing to think with you about what might be possible. But be careful not to push an agenda on the partner organization. Companies shouldn’t dictate what a nonprofit does or push onerous reporting requirements on it. But it should leverage its strengths to benefit everyone involved.
For McCollum at the KLA Foundation, SiE has been a “true partner.” That’s because the leaders at SiE have been “willing to roll their sleeves up and think through what a partnership would look like and help execute to help us meet our goals as well,” McCollum says. For example, KLA is in early conversations to bring SiE to other communities where KLA has offices. If it comes to fruition, that support will entail brokering relationships with schools and other stakeholders in the community as well as funding to allow SiE to deliver its programs locally.
Importantly, KLA is not trying to dictate the parameters of SiE’s program. Hands-on science education is SiE’s bread-and-butter, and KLA recognizes that core competency. But KLA can support SiE’s efforts through people, community connections and funding. McCollum says, “[SiE is] doing the work. It’s great … to have a partner whose approach is, ‘Let’s talk about it.’”
Partnerships between companies and nonprofits can be a win-win-win. But they need to be approached strategically and carefully if they are going to benefit the nonprofit, the company and the community.
Rachel Burstein, PhD, is an independent education researcher and writer. Her writing has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Slate, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, among other publications.