Cross-sector Collaboration: Find and Foster
In a recent survey we conducted with NFP leaders, there was overwhelming support for cross-sector collaboration. Their motivation was clear with funding (93%) and connections (87%) being the two highest responses. However, when prompted on why we do not see these collaborations more often, their responses were unanimously in the ‘too hard basket’.
Corporates often set a high bar for collaboration: grant applications, meetings, pitches, case studies, annual reports etc. This may be part of an efficient process; however, you might have also indirectly filtered out NFPs that do not have or are not willing to invest the resources needed to even start the conversation… because they are too busy delivering the services we expect them to.
Conversely, the amount of work an NFP is required to do upfront results in the creation of unrealistic expectations. They also need to justify their return on investment. This front-loading of ‘cost and reward’ often stops promising conversations in their tracks. Furthermore, if funding is involved, it can also create a power imbalance whereby a partnership turns into a client-supplier relationship.
The last barrier is the time it takes to establish these collaborations. This ironically is often created to tackle the most pressing social issues. Imagine if our corporate sales cycle took months or years, it would not be a very sustainable business.
There are many things that NFPs can do to better position themselves for cross-sector collaboration. There are also a handful of things that we can do to foster the right environment as well.
Firstly, get clear about your social pillars.
These are often based on social causes or SDGs and are endorsed by senior leaders, voted on by your staff, or selected due to their strategic alignment with the core services of your company (a.k.a. shared-value). These pillars can guide your selection criteria, sharpen your communication, and provide reassurance that cross-sector collaboration is important in delivering your desirable social outcomes.
Next, consider the potential scope of cross-sector collaboration and start with the end in mind.
What is the level of involvement you want to have in creating impact? Do you simply want to back an NFP that is on the right track or mobilise your staff to volunteer their skills to accelerate the process? Is your workforce geographically dispersed? And therefore, would a large NFP with a national reach or a number of NFPs tackling local issues deliver a better outcome?
For collaborative opportunities where funding is not part of the initial engagement, it’s always good practice to know where you can find the funding and the business case you need to put together to potentially scale the engagement.
Lastly, try to build checks & balances into the journey rather than front-loading them.
Finding the right partner to collaborate with is important. The hoops that they need to jump through shouldn’t impede progress.
I have always found the best course of action is… ACTION!
Start with informal engagements. Invite them to a ‘lunch-and-learn’ rather than committing your staff to a marquee event in the first instance. Register your team to attend an established program delivered by an NFP. This is before you dive in and ask to co-design a new one. Observe how the NFP operates and whether your staff engages with them. When you’ve found a potential NFP for long-term engagement, co-design a pilot program. Test the NFP’s ability to meet a scope of work that reflects elements of your end goal.
Victor Lee is the CEO and Co-Founder of Communiteer.