By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., Senior Scholar
Imagine, after all pandemic restrictions are lifted, walking into a youth-serving organization that has fully embraced nurturing developmental relationships. What, if anything, would be noticeable?
This question is similar to the ones we were asking when we launched the Relationships for Outcomes Initiative (ROI) in 2017 with five national partners. This signature project sought to shed light on this central question:
Can youth organizations become more intentional and inclusive in nurturing developmental relationships, particularly with and among young people in marginalized communities?
We spent three years working with partners exploring strategies and testing tools that would help to answer that question. We didn’t find (and couldn’t have found) a single, definitive answer. We really didn’t expect to.
As I look back on the learning and change processes we went through with our partners, I recall several critical questions we asked along the way that helped determine how each partner responded to emerging issues and questions.
These partners shared values, program models, and practices as well as a commitment to work with Search Institute using the same tools and measures. Yet each organization (or each affiliate) needed to weave the core principles and practices of building developmental relationships into its own approach. This integration was necessary so that nurturing them became part of who they were, rather than an add-on that risked getting knocked off when the funding went away or attention shifted to the next idea.
The underlying, often unspoken, question seems to have been: Where do developmental relationships fit in the organization? The easy answer is “everywhere.” Although that may be the ultimate goal, it's not helpful for planning and action. So maybe the question has to be modified with “right now,” pointing to issues of readiness and receptivity. In retrospect, three questions of scope seemed to be particularly salient for how each organization shaped its initial approach.
Strategies for Growing Relationship-Rich Organizations
Each partner sought a strategic balance between weaving developmental relationships into what it was already doing and highlighting developmental relationships as an explicit and distinct accent, for youth activities, professional development, family engagement, or other priorities. To some extent, the two emphases reinforce each other, if you have the capacity to invest in both. All national partners have, in different ways, integrated developmental relationships into their training systems, making them an explicit and distinct focus. They are also weaving the approach into existing systems in order to, as a Generation Citizen leader described it, “bring those relational aspects to life in our curriculum.”
In addition, each of the design sites (local affiliates of national partners who worked closely with Search Institute throughout ROI) have both created explicit opportunities to focus on developmental relationships (such as staff meetings, training, and youth activities) and integrated the approach into multiple existing activities and practices. For example, Camp Fire Columbia in Portland, Oregon, has embedded developmental relationships in its staff support and training system. As a result, the framework, its language, and its guiding principles are becoming part of the organization’s culture and practices, rather than an add-on to already busy schedules.
Images of relationship-building usually focus on direct interactions between young people and their teachers, youth workers, and other adults. Those direct relationships certainly play central roles in programmatic and organizational settings. In addition, ROI partners—like many before them—found that organizational change depends on a broader set of organizational norms and reinforcements if the goal is for developmental relationships to shape the culture and practices of everyone in the organization.
In the case of City Year, Columbus, Ohio, much of the focus was on staff and volunteers working directly in the schools. However, they sought to ensure that a commitment to nurturing developmental relationships permeated the organization’s staff. Executive Director Tasha Booker Fowler said: “Now our development manager, our development director, chief of staff, myself, and even our recruitment and admissions team are really working with the framework and infusing it throughout our day-to-day work.”
What’s important in these examples is the specificity of naming each person and each role, and giving each person opportunities to examine and practice how they can cultivate developmental relationships. That approach is quite different from a general “everyone should do this” call to action.
Like most youth-serving organizations, the ROI partners experienced challenges simultaneously. During the three years we worked together formally, they contended with multiple frameworks, new strategic plans, staffing changes, emphases on trauma-informed practices, equity, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the racial justice uprising—along with a variety of other local issues for each of the local design sites where we were partnering most intensively. The ongoing question was: Do we do our developmental relationship-building work as a separate focus? Do we integrate it with all the other things that are going on? Or do we tackle one or two things at a time, saving developmental relationships (or something else) until we get past this or that crisis?
These complex projects are frustrating to researchers. They introduce too many “confounding variables” that result in impossibly complex models to assess. In reality, those “confounding variables” are also called “real life.” The most important challenge is discovering how to design robust, resilient, and responsive approaches that are valuable even in the midst of all of that complexity.
Each partner struggled with different, evolving issues in various ways. Some regrouped and refocused after major staff changes. Like virtually everyone else, all the partners found themselves in new roles with new expectations after the pandemic hit. Others found innovative ways to integrate competing priorities in ways that strengthened each. For example, Communities in Schools of San Antonio, Texas (CIS-SA), intentionally integrated developmental relationships with trauma-informed responsiveness, including certifying staff in trauma-informed training. By intentionally linking trauma-informed practices and developmental relationships, CIS-SA leaders report that they have found they can better serve students who have experienced trauma through the lens of developmental relationships.
We began ROI with a core premise that our partners were already committed to building relationships with and among young people. Indeed, each partner was and is doing remarkable work in often challenging circumstances and dealing with a unique set of dynamics.
When the ROI partners gathered in person or virtually, those who used developmental relationships to inform their staff development were sharing their tools with those who were just thinking about it. Those with track records of building relationship-centered partnerships with families were sharing their approaches with those who have had less success. Often, our main job was to create a space for conversation and to take good notes.
If you were to visit each of the ROI partner organizations that focused on developmental relationships, what would you notice? You’d probably see a lot of the same kinds of people and programs you’d see in many other similar organizations—many of which are also really good at building relationships. I also hope you’d experience a level of intentionality or purposefulness in how they approach relationships in ways that fit who they are, their culture, and their community.
But I’m pretty sure of one thing: They would all be doing some great stuff to build developmental relationships with and among young people. But they definitely would not all look the same.
These five youth-serving organizations partnered with Search Institute in Relationships for Outcomes (ROI). Each partner included a local “design site” where we collaboratively listened to youth, staff, and parents, prototyped and tested tools, gathered feedback, and collected data.
Camp Fire Columbia Council, Portland, OR
Program at South San Antonio High School, TX
Office in Boston, MA
Toberman Neighborhood Center, San Pedro, CA