In 2015, a group of business, philanthropic, education, and government leaders decided to revitalize a cross-sector effort to create a world-class talent development system in Summit County, Ohio. After working for more than a year to align diverse interests, in 2016 they were ready to announce their ambitious, shared goals. The leaders faced a simple but vexing issue: What to call the entity created to coordinate their collective effort? A nonprofit that failed in a similar mission years earlier was called Summit Workforce Solutions. This name suggested that it provided workforce training, but it didn’t—and neither would this new entity. Rather, the new partnership would coordinate a cross-sector collaboration that would help educators, training entities, and social service agencies understand and meet the talent needs of growing companies. The group made a bold choice, deciding on the ambiguous name ConxusNEO. “We gave it a funny name to prompt people to ask, ‘What’s that do?,’” said Chris Thompson, a collaboration consultant who supported ConxusNEO’s development. “We couldn’t come up with just a few words to capture the unusual roles [each group] played in coordinating cross-sector collaboration, so we made up a word.”

Communicating the work of organizations like ConxusNEO is difficult because their mission—fostering cross-sector collaboration—is unusual, Thompson told us in a recent conversation. “We’re accustomed to communicating how organizations perform specific actions that generate specific results. But cross-sector collaboration is about improving system outcomes, and systems are really different than organizations. We’re so unfamiliar with systems that we struggle to communicate what they look like.”

Communicating about government-business-nonprofit collaboration is challenging. Yet practitioners must continually communicate the nature and value of their work to funders, potential partners, internal organizational stakeholders (senior managers or governing boards), and external organizational stakeholders (customers, voters, or donors). Because communicating the work is critical and difficult, The Intersector Project engaged Hart Research to convene six focus groups exploring the public’s views toward cross-sector collaboration. The groups, conducted in New York, Chicago, and Raleigh, North Carolina, comprised individuals from across the political spectrum and with various sector experiences. Our recent report captures insights from these groups, which practitioners can use to inform their communications efforts.

Emphasize the added ideas, energy, and resources that cross-sector collaboration can bring to addressing a problem. When asked about approaches to solving community problems, focus group participants didn’t mention cross-sector collaboration. But when facilitators introduced the idea, people responded very favorably. Cross-sector collaboration had intuitive appeal for focus group participants, who understood that each sector has strengths and weaknesses, and were attracted to the notion that sectors can collaboratively direct their assets to solving problems.

Communicate how cross-sector collaboration differs from the status quo and previous attempts to address the problem, highlighting the conditions that increase chances for success. While there was support among focus group participants for cross-sector collaboration, there was not active demand for it. The public would like to see more of it but did not overwhelmingly see it as a “breakthrough” approach to solving intractable problems. This was partly because people believed there’s already a fair amount of collaboration among sectors. They also displayed an innate understanding that collaboration is difficult and that the right conditions are not always present.

Draw on the public’s perceptions of the weaknesses of your sector and strengths of other sectors to make the case for cross-sector collaboration. Emphasize how each partner is assuming responsibilities that reflect its sector’s strengths. While focus group participants didn’t intuitively see the world as divided among sectors, they did view the government, nonprofit, and business sectors differently, associating each with distinct assets and limitations. Due to its size and infrastructure, government was seen as having the greatest potential to enact change, but its size was also a perceived weakness. People valued the motives of the nonprofit sector but also thought nonprofits often do not have the resources to achieve their goals. They also perceived businesses as efficient in making decisions and addressing problems, while noting the sector’s potential to harm communities and the environment. Emphasizing how cross-sector collaboration leverages these strengths and mitigates these weaknesses may be effective with the public.

People generally saw each sector as having a positive impact, even government, although it ranked last among the sectors. (Image by The Intersector Project)

Thoughtfully consider the language you use to describe the partnership. Some phrases describing cross-sector collaboration resonated with focus group participants more than others. The phrases with the greatest appeal were “multi-sector collaboration” and “multi-sector partnerships;” there was a more negative reaction to the word “cooperation.”

When communicating stories of successful collaboration, include elements that give your audience a clear understanding of what cross-sector collaboration is and can achieve. Focus group participants had the opportunity to evaluate case studies of cross-sector collaboration. Their varying reactions point toward three elements that result in more effective stories of success:

  • Explain how the collaboration succeeded where past efforts did not and how the involvement of multiple sectors made a difference, whether through a new strategy, additional resources, or removing political barriers.
  • Clarify that all sectors genuinely contributed to the effort. In cases where the role of one or two sectors appears trivial, people focused on that element, undercutting their appreciation for the initiative.
  • Focus on specific community outcomes that improved. Cases that discuss changes in process but not actual outcomes proved less compelling.

One of the most interesting findings from these focus groups was that people believe both that government is the root of most modern problems and that it is government’s responsibility to solve them. While the public may express a desire for better government, many citizens are actually seeking better governance—a better process for solving public problems. Governance today requires more than just government. Yet our focus groups showed that cross-sector collaboration is not yet top of mind for most people and has only passive support. If individuals were more aware of how cross-sector collaboration influences their lives and the use of their tax dollars, they might be more invested in how groups are using it in their communities. For this reason, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and other civic-minded organizations have an important role to play in effectively communicating their experiences with cross-sector collaboration to relevant leaders, the media, and the general public. 

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