If you have worked with me since I entered philanthropy, you have likely heard me advocate for funders to support work happening at the intersections of sectors (e.g., where “topical areas of focus” meet, public/private partnerships, nonprofit/for-profit collaborations, etc.).
Physical environment and community connectedness are significant determinants of individual health; students must be active, well-nourished, and safe in order to learn; to thrive, an economy requires a well-educated workforce among other things; consumption and other economic activities influence pollution and climate change. I could go on but hopefully you get the basic point: sectors are intrinsically connected and people do not live in siloes. Working across and, especially, at the intersection of sectors can further the great work already being done to improve lives and living conditions across the state.
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to learn more about what it means and what it takes to effectively fund and collaborate at the intersections.
The motivation is there. The resources for long-term collaborative work often are not.
The idea that developing deep partnerships benefits social change is not new. Nonprofit leaders recognize that we are all working towards similar goals and are motivated to work together to improve outcomes when given the opportunity. Often missing, however, is the time and funding to convene and sustain deeply collaborative processes over the long-term. Genuine relationships and trust take time to develop. Bringing together stakeholders across sectors requires time to share knowledge, data, and language, to develop understanding, and to generate actionable ideas on how to maximize each partner’s strengths. Time is needed to identify and plan how entities can and will work together, ironing out the kinks of mutual ownership and accountability and iterating as more is learned and trust deepens. The process is rarely simple or linear – but it is valuable. As funders, we should consider how to support both initial and ongoing collaboration to more effectively achieve and extend the outcomes we all seek.
For example, funders can encourage and support grantees to come together across sectors to share and collect data and information about their constituencies’ needs, wants, and strengths. Our nonprofit community is wonderfully knowledgeable of and responsive to residents’ needs and visions. As such, community members are sometimes surveyed multiple times through various agencies and for different planning processes. Although many nonprofits collect and utilize rich data (at both individual and aggregate levels), other nearby or related organizations often are not aware of or privy to this valuable information. Partnering across organizations and sectors around data collection and analysis can help reduce the redundancy for residents and increase effectiveness for all - while also creating more opportunities to identify and leverage strengths within and across partners.
An external facilitator helps, but partners need to truly own the collaborative work.
Having an impartial leader to help stakeholders come together across sectors is beneficial in navigating and alleviating early concerns about power dynamics, in facilitating the sharing of data and information to drive towards common understanding, and in keeping partners on track and working toward identified plans and goals. But the work needs to be a reflection and responsibility of the partners, truly owned by all those at the table, in order to achieve the desired outcome of greater impact. While an external leader who can facilitate the sometimes tricky process of building effective relationships, partnerships, and actionable plans can greatly increase – but does not guarantee – success. Partners must have the time and commitment to authentically engage in order to truly create impact beyond their own reach. This requires funding – at the outset and over-time – in order for the partners to dedicate required resources to the collective effort.
Public sector collaboration – across and at the intersection of agencies and with external partners – is especially impactful.
A majority of the dollars that flow to nonprofits comes from the local, state, and federal government. The structure and operations of public agencies and funding streams thus greatly influence the structure and operations of nonprofit programs and services, including for example what data is collected and what outcomes are sought. As philanthropic leaders, we do well to encourage our public partners to work across sectors, bringing together public agencies, departments, and commissions, along with nonprofits, community members, and business leaders, to further the impact that any one player can achieve on their own. Recent examples of strong cross-agency, cross-sector, and public/private partnerships that I have been fortunate to participate in include the Massachusetts Food System planning process (directed the State’s Food Policy Council), the Mass in Motion program, and the implementation of a multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program.
Incentivizing collaboration is inherently valuable in the long-term.
Working across sectors in search of greater outcomes inherently strengthens the connectivity across our communities. By incentivizing cross-sector collaboration, funders can catalyze valuable relationships and create joint learning, shared understanding, and mutual ownership. As our society becomes more diverse, relationships across the various sectors through which we organize and work - true collaboration and shared ownership - will be key to creating an equitable society where all residents are empowered to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
While working at the intersections has often been challenging, I continue to believe in its promise and value. The communities of inspired leaders with which I have had the privilege to work continue to motivate and energize me on the learning journey we forge together. We continue to tap into the power that working at the intersections has for our work, and, most importantly, for those we serve. Clichéd though it may be, we indeed can achieve more together than apart. I encourage funders to deepen their support of cross-sector collaboration and even pull a seat up to the table and ask – ”So, how can I fund at the intersections?”
Jessica del Rosario is the Project Director for the Massachusetts Convergence Partnership, a public/private funder collaborative with the mission to increase the number of healthy people living in healthy places by advocating for policy, system and environment change. She is also the Project Manager for the Boston pilot of the Alignment of Health Equity and Development (AHEAD), a project bringing together hospitals, public health and community development to work towards improving population health outcomes.