Lisa Smith

Net Impact In Review: The Growing Imperative of Cross-Sector Collaboration

One recurring theme and a growing imperative consistent across the Net Impact 2010 Conference sessions I attended was the need to increase mindful cross-sector collaborations, particularly within the field of development.

Whether the intent was to better engage the BoP in healthcare, rebuild Haiti or create a sustainable social enterprise, the presenters at the Net Impact conference all spoke to the improvements that can be made in the way we design and conceptualize collaborative partnerships in order to create positive social change.

For all of the presenters in the session on “International Social Enterprise – Operational and Implementation Challenges,” successful partnerships, especially within the communities they sought to serve, acted as the litmus test for the overall success of the enterprise. Realizing the importance of cross-sector collaboration is one thing, but what are the methods for creating an effective partnership? How do you combine potentially different value propositions under one effort? And, what are the practical skills you can use to approach partnering across segments of society?

The Social Innovation session on “Cross-Sector Collaboration: Maximizing Impact through Successful Partnerships” provided experience-based insights to help answer these questions. Successful partnerships, session panelists said, require skills outside of those that are taught in traditional business school programs. They require skills you would more likely learn during a lesson on community organizing; skills such as active listening, building trusting relationships, immersing yourself and staying within the population you seek to serve, humility, transparency and accountability in practice and flexibility to explore ideas and solutions as a group – not entering into relationships with a predetermined solution. Collaborations require both recognition of the value you and your partners wish to bring to partnerships as well as extensive knowledge of historical context. Each sector requires different sensitivity to the political climate, internal culture and regulatory system.

Together, collaborators create new agendas to address areas of interest, decide how the defined goal can be reached, and collectively work to improve current conditions. Short-term engagements with collaborations are often less risky and therefore, at times, present more appealing commitments; however, long-term collaborations possess the potential to create systemic change. Benchmarks can serve as one method to take broad goals and define them incrementally, reassessing and enhancing approaches with each benchmark addressed.

While the session on “Cross-sector Collaboration: Maximizing Impact through Successful Partnerships” provided an overarching argument for and description of collaboration of this nature, the session “Haiti Onward: Rebuilding for Success” provided a tangible application of coordinated collaboration as the most effective method for addressing post-disaster aid and development. A common criticism of aid work is that there is no systematic method for ensuring that redundant activities are managed (or reduced in some cases) to make certain that money is spent on the most impactful/sustainable initiatives and that the spectrum of needs are being addressed with available resources.

Haiti Onward is an orchestrating entity that organizes initiatives to create a collaborative and unified movement for change within Haiti. Its work aligns skills of a variety of groups to operate effectively and efficiently as an “ecosystem of workers.” Within the initiative are partner organizations that intend to stay in Haiti long-term and to transfer skills/capacity to Haitian partners. (You can read more about partner organizations within Haiti Onward here). While meeting immediate needs is a focus, identifying antecedents of current problems and addressing these larger systemic challenges with sustainable and locally-sourced solutions directs the majority of the work under the Haiti Onward initiative.

While none of the panel speakers were Haitian, their involvement was framed in a way that made Haitians the central change agents. The non-Haitian partners’ long-term goal for this collaborative effort is to “make yourself not needed and leave a sustainable infrastructure, all the while providing continued consulting services when necessary, noted Sam Bloch, Founder and Executive Director of Grassroots United. Its initiative provides one example of how long-term collaboration may change individual roles, but that the system remains intact.

The reality is that individuals, whether in Haiti or elsewhere, do not operate in separate philosophical silos in their everyday lives. Rather, they interact with and are often bombarded by different forces (business, social, economic, psychological etc.) in daily activities. Why then, would we approach solving human problems through development without the same regard for intersections of sectors? It appears the shift within the field of development is already underway. Despite the challenges, professionals operating within different sectors in society are increasingly aware of the importance of cross-sector collaboration in resolving larger social issues.

For more information on some of these cross-sector movements on NextBillion look here, here and here.