Some Common Cross-Sector Partnership Traps

This post originally appeared on the Living Cities blog, The Catalyst, on Nov 18, 2013

I’ve been following the excellent work Living Cities has been doing on cross-sector partnerships and have a couple of observations to add to the mix. For the past seven years, I’ve been collecting the strategic plans that regional partnerships have been developing to spur job growth. Because these plans aren’t worth much unless somebody actually does something with them, I’ve been following up to see what’s being done to implement them. In most cases, I’ve found very little ongoing activity beyond the first year or two after the plan was written. I’ve dug into why the work has languished and found three main traps that these cross-sector partnerships are falling into.

Trap 1: Spreading your partnership too thin. Because cross-sector partnerships want to make large-scale changes, many have attempted to improve as many things as possible, as much as possible, as quickly as possible. But in the process, they’ve found that focusing on too many things at once diffuses their energy and resources, produces complexity and turbulence, and leads to stress and burnout among the partners. In short, they’ve found that while tackling complex problems requires a comprehensive approach, the broader the agenda, the more difficult it is to implement.

Paradoxically, I’ve found that partnerships that are able to achieve large-scale change, focus on just a few key strategic points of leverage, where the least amount of effort can make the biggest difference. This approach involves doing rigorous strategic analysis up front, inviting the right people to the table at the right time, and working at a scale that was big enough to have an impact, but not so big that the effort becomes too difficult to manage and sustain.

Trap 2: Getting tangled up over who gets the credit. On the one hand, the partnerships I’ve studied and worked with have realized that they need a strong, influential backbone organization that can bring credibility and visibility to their effort. On the other hand, they’ve found that other organizations in the partnership can become resentful and disengage if the backbone organization gets too much of the credit when all partners are doing the work. This tension seems to be most acute during the “grinding it out phase” after the excitement of the launch phase has worn off and the focus has shifted to implementation, but before there’s much to show yet in terms of results. It is critical to keep participating organizations engaged, during this phase since the leaders and representatives from them are vital to carrying out the work of the cross-sector partnership.

The key is for the backbone organization to share ownership and credit in ways that build mutual trust and respect among the partnering organizations. But that takes a lot of restraint and humility on the part of the backbone organization, which also needs to justify its continuing stewardship of the partnership to its own investors to ensure their continued support, in the face of inevitable shifts in organizational leadership and priorities.

Trap 3: Finding stable, long-term funding. Although their success requires a sustained effort over many years, cross-sector partnerships often have found that funders opt to support specific projects that focus on short-term results. As a result, cross-sector partnerships have been forced to cobble together an assortment of grants and other short-term sources of funding to support their long-term systems change efforts. Most understand that, ultimately, the way to get to scale, is to tap into the streams of funding that support existing systems and redirect them to more productive uses, but that takes time. In the meantime, they risk losing their focus, and sometimes even their identity, chasing short-term funding opportunities to sustain their efforts.

Until funders change their ways, one effective strategy is having a core group of leaders who are in it for the long haul, and who can orchestrate an iterative process that advances a long-term agenda. Whenever I go into a new community, I always go looking for that core group, but it often takes a little digging, since their efforts often go unnoticed. However, the folks I’ve found share several common characteristics: they are widely trusted and respected, comfortable and skilled working across organizational boundaries, and able to get things done.

What do you think? Have you been involved in a cross-sector partnership that’s fallen into these traps? How did you work to overcome them? What are other traps in this type of work?

Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies