In 1999, social entrepreneur Vanessa Kirsch approached the Monitor Group consulting firm with an idea. What if the consultancy would agree to collaborate with her nonprofit venture philanthropy fund, New Profit, to help other social entrepreneurs do more and better work? Kirsch proposed a simple recipe: New Profit would provide high-potential organizations with unrestricted growth capital to make a substantive, positive difference in the world; Monitor would round out the equation, providing intellectual capital via pro bono consulting support.  

Fast-forward 15 years, and the two organizations are still collaborating (Monitor Group is now part of Deloitte Consulting LLP). Together, the partnership has supported more than 40 nonprofits and other social impact organizations in the areas of early childhood learning, college and career readiness, and public health—including Teach for America, KIPP, and Health Leads.

In the course of their work, New Profit and Deloitte have learned a lot about helping nonprofits expand and succeed. But they’ve also learned several important lessons (some the hard way) about what it takes to sustain a collaborative, cross-sector effort, and expand its impact over time. 

Principles for the Long Term

Both of us have been involved in the collaboration, and here we share what we’ve learned so far.

There is a lot of easily accessible information about setting up cross-sector collaborations for success, and much of it is good: Concepts such as having a two-way value proposition, commitment from senior management and values alignment, and willingness from both parties to invest in building mutual understanding are important. 

But these sorts of things are table stakes. Beyond the groundwork, three additional principles have made a real difference for us, and we believe that they can help other cross-sector collaborators as well. 

1. Design ... and redesign.

Don’t set the parameters of a collaboration or its offerings in stone at the outset. Doing so may seem attractive, because it creates a sense of confidence about what’s on the table and what’s not. But in reality, it might be creating false security. There needs to be room to evolve the partnership over time as the organizations learn and grow together. 

The coaching component of our collaboration, for example, was initially a critical part of our value proposition: Monitor consulting partners had the opportunity to support game-changing social entrepreneurs, New Profit could add a distinctive offering to its portfolio, and social-sector CEOs benefited from the same caliber of coaching available to their Fortune 500 counterparts.

Over time, however, we saw the coaching model begin to lose traction. A number of critical variables shifted: New Profit’s portfolio managers began serving as thought partners to the nonprofit CEOs they were funding; social entrepreneurs had new ways to actively engage business leaders; and Monitor’s growth left little room for its leaders to engage in sustained pro bono coaching.

So we pivoted: We retired the coaching model, replacing it with an initiative to match social entrepreneurs looking for board members with Deloitte partners—a plan that has been working well for all involved, for now.

2. Strive to engage the entire organization. 

We discovered this principle by accident: When the two of us were mid-level managers ourselves, it was OK for us to keep the nuts-and-bolts processes and norms of the collaboration mostly in our heads. Predictably, when we took on new roles, we were forced to download our implicit “operating instructions” into a formal playbook so that it would be easier for new mid-level managers to work as productively as possible out of the gates. Interestingly, there was a side benefit to that action we hadn’t counted on—one that has proven very important to the success of the collaboration over time.

That playbook, as it turned out, has been a real asset in attracting an entire cadre of managers to participate in the collaboration, as well as guiding them once they begin their work. It serves to show a broad internal audience at Deloitte and at New Profit what the collaboration is about, and how they might find participating a rewarding venture. Many of these managers now read the playbook closely upon joining and become powerful contributors to the partnership.  

3. Face tough issues head on.

Sometimes issues arise in a cross-sector collaboration that are difficult to discuss. It often seems like the best course of action is to push those issues to the side in the interest of getting the work of the day accomplished. People dance around an area of conflict, finessing details and papering over problems so that work can continue “uninterrupted.” 

But just as with any longstanding relationship, we’ve learned that while addressing issues in the moment can be challenging, it is critical for the long-term success of the collaboration.

We saw this lesson play out 10 years into our collaboration, when our consulting project model was under pressure. Social entrepreneurs were not satisfied with project outcomes, consulting teams weren’t having positive professional development experiences, and portfolio managers saw consulting resources as too constrained to meet their organizations’ strategy needs. By working with leaders on both sides to root out the sources of the problem, getting honest about how each organization was contributing, and investing the time to design a new way of operating from the ground up, we got the collaboration back on track and made it stronger than before.

In some respects, this principle is similar to the first one—being open to new ideas, and evolving the relationship as needed to keep it strong and relevant. But it’s one thing to look ahead when all parties agree that something in the partnership is becoming obsolete. It’s another thing entirely to transform a stressful situation where people are unhappy and inclined to place blame into one where people purposefully work together to turn negative feelings into an opportunity. 

We believe that cross-sector collaborations hold the key to providing lasting solutions to many global social needs. We see a bright future for our continued relationship—and we hope that these principles can help speed others along on the path to collaborative success.