Most of us have heard the term “cross-sector collaboration” before, but we may not know how to put it to work for us. Your organization doesn’t have to take on saving the world alone! Here is a guide to taking those precious first steps into a collaborative environment and the benefits it brings.

The countless issues facing the world today are increasingly complex. Seeking solutions for issues of hunger, health care, climate change, poverty, and more, increasingly requires skill, innovation, and communication – which is why cross-sector collaboration is so important.

Can nonprofits provide the kinds of solutions that are needed alone? Nonprofits are solution seekers of the most noble kind, but with a narrow scope and limited resources, most often they can only tackle a small piece of the problem. Cross-sector collaboration seeks to bring together organizations from different sectors – nonprofit, government, philanthropic, and business – to bring about sustainable change on the largest scale possible. In this article we’ll cover:

  • The Benefits Of Cross-Sector Collaboration for Nonprofits
  • How To Know If A Cross-Sector Partnership Is Right For Your Nonprofit
  • Different Types of Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • How To Approach A Business With A Partnership Proposal

The Benefits Of Cross-Sector Collaboration for Nonprofits

The benefits of cross-sector collaboration can be huge for both nonprofits and their partners. By partnering with other types of organizations, your nonprofit can:

  • Reach A Wider Audience – By teaming up, you have the potential to reach an untapped market. A wider audience can mean more engagement, more volunteers, and more donations.
  • Learn More About Your Community – Partnering can mean tapping into a new well of expertise and knowledge. In each sector, everyone has different points of view and works in very different realities. By widening your scope of the community, your nonprofit can operate from a more informed position.
  • Work More Efficiently – When you invite a greater number of intelligent, capable people into the collaborative mix, you set yourself up for better, more innovative ideas, and you discover new opportunities and networks together. Organizations in other sectors may be skilled in areas where your nonprofit is not, and a partnership can help both organizations work more effectively.
  • Move More Quickly Toward Systemic Change – Instead of piecemeal solutions, together you can develop a more coordinated strategy for tackling problems in your community.

How To Know If A Cross-Sector Partnership Is Right For Your Nonprofit

Partnering with another organization can have real benefits for your nonprofit and for your partner as well. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you. Cross-sector collaborations require a significant amount of time and resources to implement and manage. To help you decide whether or not to enter into a cross-sector partnership, consider the following questions:

What problem are we trying to solve?

Your mission and goals as a nonprofit are a good place to start. Dig deep and try to uncover the specific root problems your nonprofit wants to address in your community. For example, a medical care facility seeking to address heart failure may find that the real problem is late diagnosis, lack of community awareness, and poor health coverage. Uncovering your root problem(s) will help you have better success at finding the right for-profit partner for your nonprofit.

How complex is the problem?

If the problem is simple enough that you already have tried-and-true methods with measurable results (like following a recipe to bake a cake), then you may not benefit from a partnership. If the problem tends to be more complex, so much so that the process you use to solve the problem changes frequently, or is impacted by various socio-economic and environmental factors, you may find that cross-sector collaboration helps you make more progress toward change.

Is there a cross-sector organization we can partner with that is trying to solve the same problem?

Think local businesses, philanthropic organizations, local government, educational institutions, etc. If the problem is systematic, you’ll more than likely find multiple organizations across different sectors are affected by it in different ways. You may have different reasons for wanting to solve the problem, but you should both be equally motivated to solve it.

Different Types of Cross-Sector Collaboration

Cross-sector collaboration can take many forms. The type of collaboration that may be right for your nonprofit depends on the complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve, as well as what kinds of connections your organization is able to make with like-minded partners. To get the ball rolling, here are four partnership models commonly seen in cross-sector collaboration.

  1. Joint Project

A joint project is a short-term collaboration, usually between just one company and one nonprofit or government partner. The purpose of a joint project is to tackle a specific, complex problem within the community through a combined effort. There are specific, measurable steps in place to achieve certain goals. Joint projects by nature have an end date, so this type of collaboration is more transactional. The upside of a transactional collaboration is that managing the partnership is relatively straightforward and painless. The downside is that it’s not able to reap the benefits that deep, genuinely collaborative relationships do.

Real Life Example: The TV White Space Partnership (TWSP) was a joint project between Microsoft, the USAID ECOFISH project, and the Government of the Philippines to improve the lives of fisher folk and the operations of coastal fisheries in the Philippines. Microsoft’s technology provided free internet to underserved populations in remote locations.

  1. Joint Program

A joint program is similar to a joint project, but more expansive. There may be multiple organizations contributing to the partnership, and completing the shared goal may involve accomplishing multiple projects over the course of several years. Partners may join or drop out of the partnership as necessary. However, to keep the program afloat, typically one organization commits to championing the program from start to finish.

Real Life Example: In the early 2000s, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, city government, and Petco came together to advocate for abandoned and homeless dogs and cats. The partnership resulted in a dramatic drop in the animal euthanization rate across New York City. To date, the coordinated and enhanced rescue efforts of the Mayor’s Alliance have saved the lives of more than 350,000 dogs and cats.

  1. Multi-Stakeholder Initiative

In a multi-stakeholder initiative, multiple organizations across different sectors team up to solve a common problem that spans the globe. Partners expect to invest a significant amount of time, resources, and funding toward solving the problem. Though each organization is already working toward a solution on their own, this pooling of resources and funds makes a much greater impact. A dedicated administrative role is required to keep all efforts coordinated.

Real Life Example: The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation brings together the efforts of multiple local businesses, manufacturers, governments, donors, and organizations in an effort to vaccinate the world’s children against infectious diseases.

  1. Collective Impact

In a collective impact collaboration, multiple organizations across different sectors are already working independently to solve an incredibly complex problem. To produce a deep, systematic change, these organizations share resources and coordinate efforts. There is no centralized administration holding the partnership together, and individual organizations may continue to operate independently. Some coordination is needed to amplify overall impact.

Real Life Example: StriveTogether is a collective impact initiative out of Cincinnati that brought together more than 300 leaders of local organizations – foundation heads, city government officials, school district representatives, university presidents, and nonprofit directors – to tackle the student education crisis in Cincinnati and the greater Kentucky area. In just four years, the group was largely successful where many had not been, and demonstrated success in key areas across multiple school districts.

How To Approach A Cross-Sector Organization With A Partnership Proposal

Are you ready to collaborate? The process of finding the right partner(s) for your nonprofit starts by simply searching the small- to medium-sized organizations in your area for ones that have values and goals that align with yours. A basic company description on LinkedIn may be all you need to move forward. You can also learn a lot about a company’s values through their social media presence (if they have one), so check their pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever is available.

Remember: include technology and media companies in your search as well. They may not have direct ties to the challenges you’re facing, but they may be suited to provide innovative solutions.

Once it’s time to reach out to potential partners, make a plan for engagement. When reaching out to a potential partner, it’s important to:

  1. Find The Right Contact Person

Do the necessary legwork required to find the right person at the company to bring a partnership proposal to. Avoid sending a message to a generic email address if possible.

  1. Tell Your Story

Where has your nonprofit been, and where do you hope to go? What is your mission statement? Find specific points of connection with each organization you reach out to and explain how your goals may align with theirs.

  1. Ask Questions

A mission statement on a LinkedIn page may differ greatly from how the company actually operates. Where have they invested in the community previously? What goals do they have for the future? Be curious about your potential partner, and listen more than you talk. These initial conversations are exploratory. Your sense of how to partner and what you can achieve together will evolve as you go along.

  1. Communicate Your Nonprofit’s Value

When you reach out to a cross-sector organization, it’s crucial that you know the value your nonprofit brings to the table. Even if you’re a small nonprofit, you have a lot to offer a for-profit organization through your partnership.

In today’s world, cross-sector collaboration is becoming increasingly necessary to produce real, systemic change. Nonprofits may be used to going it alone, but they certainly don’t have to – and probably shouldn’t. There is so much to be gained by collaboration. It won’t be easy, and change won’t happen overnight – but if you can do your due diligence and find the right partners, you can help your nonprofit accomplish so much more in your community and across the world.

By Emily Baxley