The Messiness of Cross-Sector Collaboration

Working together seems like a commonsense goal for social sector organizations to have. But when it comes to actual practice, things can get pretty messy. Over the past 19 years, I’ve played many roles in cross-sector collaborations—evaluator, intermediary, fund committee member, and community member. In order to make collaborations work, I’ve often had to be the planner, prodder, and provoker of change; sometimes all at the same time.

Recently, the James Irvine Foundation commissioned an Issue Brief on how to navigate systems change with multiple partners. Harder+Company collaborated with Equal Measure and Engage R+D to develop this brief in order to encourage discussion about the challenges of creating change when various folks are at the table.

As we worked on the brief, I found myself reflecting on the ways that I have approached cross-sector collaboration throughout the years. Here are some insights that I’ve come to learn about what it takes to manage the intricacies of collaboration.

Four Key Components of Cross-Sector Collaboration

Nurturing relationships is an important skill for consultants when we are in the weeds of cross-sector collaboration. You often have to bridge the gap between funders, grantees, intermediaries, and evaluators. You steer the course of a project and do the “squishy” work of managing relationships that are vital to success.

Below are four main takeaways on what to do and not do when cultivating relationships for effective cross-sector collaboration.      

1. Develop durable trust. A main ingredient to the most successful cross-sector collaborations I’ve led or participated in has been establishing a level of trust. In some groups, trust has meant a more personal relationship. I’m currently part of a collaborative that starts each meeting with 20 minutes of informal conversation, which has served us well to build rapport and a deeper sense of connection. This group built strong enough trust to weather tough and raw—but necessary—conversations about race and power.

In collaborations where partners have experienced more conflict, I have helped them build trust—not at a personal level, but by forming and adhering to common agreements and processes that provide stability and confidence. Regardless of the tenor of the relationship, a basic level of respect and trust is essential—the ABCD Trust Model is an excellent resource to put trust into action. Don’t assume that collaboration will emerge naturally since everyone is working on the same project; durable trust comes from intentional communication and the willingness (and courage!) to make a strong relationship.

2. Use a systems lens. A systems perspective assists in identifying the relationships, boundaries, and perspectives needed to negotiate the complexities of collaboration. Systems thinking also provides the ability to balance both “forest” and “tree” thinking. As a committee member with the Social Equity Collaborative Fund, I used this lens as we worked through the difference in perspectives between traditional funding approaches, which are transactional, and transformative approaches that support small, hard to find/hard to fund, organizations that focus on racial justice. This exploration to unpack the deep-seated mental models of each approach allowed us to grow a more appropriate and equitable engagement that supported change at a grassroots level.

To keep this skill sharp, I often turn to systems concepts in action and go back to Peter M. Senge’s seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, for inspiration (and there’s also a field guide that’s really great). Don’t lose sight and focus too much on minor details—think about the larger systems at play and our role to foster change.

3. Have an evaluation mindset. The mindset of evaluation orients me to organizing complicated work, considering what could be a measurable win, and keeping an eye on how structures and processes may affect results and impacts. This has allowed me to better handle the messiness that occurs in cross-sector collaboration because it shapes my thinking about how we will collectively achieve our end goals.

For example, I assisted in the establishment of the San Diego Youth Development Office that brought together public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to re-envision how we support the region’s youth. The evaluation mindset was a valuable asset because it helped me design the initial formation of the project so that it could be evaluated by future funders. This mindset, combined with thoughtful consideration of relationship building, provides the scaffolding to engage in the hard work that follows. It’s important to remember that an evaluation mindset takes the ability to foster connections as a process, an experience, and a skill.

4. Focus on community. Collaborations must remember who they do the work for is the ultimate reason why cross-sector collaboration can be so powerful. This “higher purpose” of prioritizing the community should ground and center the work. The way groups handle this effort is critical.

I’ve been part of some collaborations that assume a seat at the table for an impacted population member is sufficient, but this oversimplifies the situation and can result in tokenism. Some of the best work I’ve been a part of has included a careful, ongoing assessment of how to meaningfully include community members. In my work with the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions’ Opportunity Youth Forum, we continually consider the role and contribution of youth for each engagement. This focus on community helps us avoid making assumptions and authentically value youth voice and perspective.

Relationships Are Worth the Mess

Collaboration may seem obvious, but it’s a difficult ideal to put into practice because relationships are complex and people have to be truly willing to compromise. In order for cross-sector collaborations to be successful, folks must develop durable relationships that are based on the ABCDs of trust; have a strong facilitative process that simultaneously manages the dynamics of the work and the relationships; and an orientation to transformational change that fundamentally shifts perspective away from transactional relationships.

I’ve minded the Ps and Ts of funder collaboration, provided tools for collaborative relationships between funders and grantees, participated on the steering committee of an equity-based collaborative fund, and worked on a guide to drive collaborative philanthropy. I look forward to continuing partnerships on collaboration and sparking conversations on how to deal with the messiness of it all. Relationships remain the heart of cross-sector collaboration and those who start the journey must be ready for changing themselves and continuously working on that foundation of trust—it’s worth it!