Tips for Cross-Sector Collaborations

Hi everyone. If I seem smarter and more attractive in the past couple of weeks, it’s because I just came back from Harvard Business School. Well, technically, I was sent as part of Seattle’s delegation to the four-day Young American Leadership Program (YALP). But whatever, I feel smarter already; and since it is technically true, I am telling all my relatives that I went to Harvard. I even have a tote bag filled with pens I stole to prove it. I’ll give my cousins these pens when I visit them in Vietnam this July, and maybe they’ll stop sending me job postings.

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Anyway, brilliant young leaders from businesses, nonprofits, and government were brought together to discuss cross-sector collaboration, an area that we nonprofits have not really thought much about or done much to advance. And it shows. While I was there—at Harvard—surrounded by up-and-coming colleagues from prestigious corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, Alaska Airlines, and White Castle, I noticed just how glaring the gaps between our sectors were. People in the program from the business sector were saying things like, “Well, all nonprofits are slippery with their outcomes, so how do we keep them accountable” and “why do we need to talk about foundations and nonprofits separately? Aren’t they all the same thing?” I know, right? I had to refrain myself from shouting, “You take that back right now or I will eat your face! I will dip your head in hummus and I will eat your face!!!”

I drank some wine to calm down, and had the sad realization that although we share the same world, the sectors are like ships that pass in the night. With one ship harassing passengers from another ship for donations and to join this ship’s board, and the other ship, more like a yacht, tossing down the occasional crab cake and a few olives. Meanwhile, this third ship is all slow and awkward and makes you wonder why you pay so much in taxes to keep it going. When was the last time you attended a coalition made up of people besides nonprofit unicorns and the occasional program officer? When did we last meet with a business or government person, and the agenda was not to secure a donation or sponsorship or grant or to get them on our boards?

So, why do we sectors suck so much at collaboration? I can think of a few reasons. First, there’s the fact that we nonprofits are spending half of our time just trying to survive much less think about strategic alliances. Second, we nonprofits often have challenges just partnering with each other or with funders. Third, we haven’t really been making a convincing case to the business sector as to why it is in their best interest to partner with us. Fourth, it seems like we just all speak different languages—“What are the KPIs?”—and it would just be too hard to learn each other’s ways of doing stuff. Fifth, this is just how things have always been.

Whatever the reasons are, our communities can’t afford for business, government, and nonprofits to be so siloed from one another. The challenges we as a society are facing increase exponentially, and the resources that we have with which to tackle these problems pretty much remain the same or decreasing. The gap between needs and resources grows by the day. To have a chance of building the community that we envision, all the sectors must be BFFs.

Luckily, through the program, we learned of some great examples of collaborations that are working. In Ohio, for instance, the Columbus Partnership was able to do some awesome stuff. Although its 50-plus members comprise mostly business CEOs, with a few nonprofits tossed in, it still achieved some great things, including bringing in new businesses and jobs, keeping the National Hockey League from leaving, and redeveloping downtown. It did, however, fail to get voters to support a huge education levy, and I wonder if some of that failure may be due to the fact that it did not have enough nonprofits and government leaders in its fold.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, formed the Water Council, a group of business, nonprofit, and civic leaders getting together with the goal of making the City the water hub of the world. Companies making money through water (finding it, selling it, processing it, etc), local universities studying water, environmental nonprofits, and even real estate agents all banded together, forming subcommittees for research, branding, education, outreach, all sorts of fun stuff. The group did some cool stuff, including water research, created the School of Freshwater Sciences in order to churn out more professionals, and started developing aquaponics technology, which from my understanding is raising fish and growing plants for food in the same contained water system.

As the world’s population continues to grow, the scarcity of water is going to increase, along with the scarcity of food, so we should all be thankful that Milwaukee is awesome and future-oriented enough to get people of different sectors to work together around this issue. When the zombie apocalypse hits, I’m driving my family to Milwaukee.

Anyway, to be frank, until this leadership program, I didn’t think much at all about cross-sector collaborations. We have our hands full just trying to get funders, who are basically in the same sector as nonprofits, to be equal partners. At various points of irritation, I’ve written open letters to the business sector, like “Dear business community: Please remember these ten things about nonprofits” and “Dear business community: Stop thinking you are better than us nonprofit folks!

However, we must now think about how to bring in the other sectors, how to get everyone to work closer together. The Columbus Partnership and Milwaukee’s Water Council took years to build up to their current level. These things take a long time to develop. In the meanwhile, we can start laying some groundwork with a few simple steps that we each can take right away:

Join a group that’s outside your expertise: I just joined an economic development group that’s focused on new market tax initiatives. What do I know about economic development? As much as I know about sports (I think today the Mariners got a touchdown at the 12th inning, because I heard fireworks as I was driving past the stadium). But I was transparent with this group, and told them I wanted to learn, and that in return, I can provide the perspective of someone who works closely with communities of color. It’s been win-win so far, and it’s fascinating. Don’t think you’re wasting your time learning stuff unrelated to your current work. We can’t do cross-sector collaboration if we don’t start learning each other’s languages.

Network and make friends with people from other sectors: We tend to gravitate toward people who share the same common interests. Most of my friends, by now, are nonprofit people. And they are awesome. But all of us need to expand our circles. As I mentioned earlier, in “3 reasons we all need to go to more happy hours,” it is in our weak ties that we get the most information. So while we should keep getting a drink with one another other, let’s now start to include folks from the other sectors. We can’t do cross-sector collaboration if we don’t know and like each other.

Get your organization to start thinking about cross-sector collaborations: Have a discussion with your board. Ironically, it’s probably chock-full of people from the business sector. If you’re doing a strategic plan, think broadly about how your organization can partner with other sectors to address issues critical to your mission. Encourage and provide space for staff to explore cross-sector partnerships.

Invite leaders from other sectors to your non-fundraising events: It seems the only time we think to invite business or government leaders to our events is when we plan to ask them for money. But we have all sorts of events/forums/discussions, and when do we stop to think, “Hey, I bet the owners of the thirty small businesses in this neighborhood might like to join in the conversation.” Let’s start building those relationships. It will take a while, since they may not be used to it. But it shouldn’t be that the only time leaders from other sectors hear from us is when we need support.

Host a cross-sector karaoke night: Plan a karaoke night, and get leaders from different sectors to join. It worked for the group in Seattle at Harvard. We are already talking about forming a “Seattle Partnership.” And because it’s Seattle, we’ve already decided all our meeting snacks will be organic and gluten-free and made from recycled other snacks.

Organize a Cross-Sector Cuddle Party: This is a strictly platonic party where leaders from the different sectors can get together and snuggle. Once a nonprofit ED and a business CEO spend half an hour cuddling, it may just inspire amazing collaborations.

All right fine, maybe not the cuddle party, though I hear it’s catching on in many cities. But the other stuff. Let me know your thoughts and other suggestions you have. For the sake of our communities, we nonprofits must start working closer with people outside our sector. Like aquaponics, where fish and plants depend on each other for existence and to keep the water clean and healthy, we are reliant on one another and must do a better job working together.

(Reprinted with permission from Nonprofit with Balls)

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