Why Cross-Sector Collaborations Keep Going Wrong (& How To Fix It)

Collaboration is as vital as it is complicated.

Why It Matters

Foundations must work with other sectors to find solutions to the biggest issues facing us today. But collaboration is notoriously difficult. We explore some of the biggest risks, and how foundations can avoid them. This article is the second of a three-part series exploring the future of philanthropy in partnership with Philanthropic Foundations Canada.

In 2004, four large foundations in Africa decided to pool their funds to deliver a bigger development program. With shared aspirations, the funders (who remain anonymous) and cross-sector partners hoped to multiply their impact by working together.

The project soon unravelled. Delays in decision-making, mistrust of partners, and insufficient time committed by staff members were a few reasons why the program eventually went nowhere. 

“Collaboration is more complex than it first appears,” said Rick James, Principal Consultant at the development non-profit INTRAC, who has written about this collaboration. 

“They realized how different they were as organizations,” he said — making cooperation especially difficult. One of the foundations was set up by a hedge fund, for example, while another included filmmakers and comedians.

Clearly, collaboration comes with some risks. And while cross-sector collaboration is vital to tackling the biggest issues in society, just because it’s necessary does not mean it’s always easy. 

So: why does collaboration sometimes fail, and what can we do to make success more likely?

Know your partners

“Collaborations fail where there aren’t truly mutual goals and an understanding of what those goals are in the first place,” said Susan Phillips, a professor at Carleton University specializing in Philanthropy and Public Policy. 

Without a common aim and strategy, partnerships can fall apart. According to Phillips, establishing those common goals requires deep knowledge of several factors. “It takes knowledge of the issue; it takes knowledge of the other players and the community and what they need.” 

Yet foundations don’t always have this expertise and knowledge. “Even though they have the financial resources, they don’t have the personnel resources to undertake that deep background work,” Phillips explained. 

That background work includes making sure the right people are at the table. Consider, for example, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative’s famously unsuccessful effort to reform public schools in New Jersey. With $100 million USD of education funding – a figure which was doubled by other philanthropists – the initiative aimed to transform Newark public schools. But five years later it closed down with disappointing results. 

The initiative failed because not only did the architects not fully understand the local issues — and they didn’t communicate with the community groups who did, such as the local teachers’ union. 

However, getting the right people to the table is not enough by itself. Cross-sector partners must be aware of the mission and goals of foundations. In Detroit, for example, philanthropy has played a significant part in local development through the New Economy Initiative. Although the work has generally been successful, one challenge, according to Phillips has been that “people expected the foundations to be open wallets” and didn’t expect them to shape the outcomes to the extent they did.

Fragile trust

Trust is another sink-or-swim aspect of cross-sector collaborations.

“You can’t control a collaboration between autonomous organizations, and where you can’t control, you have to trust,” said James. This is a real challenge, especially when millions of dollars in capital are involved. “Vulnerability is so counter-cultural, you want to risk-manage,” he said.

The depth of trust necessary depends on how organizations are working together. In a collaboration based on sharing information, foundations are unlikely to put as much on the line as compared to working closely on significant projects, which have greater potential for impact, but require more skin in the game.

The four foundations working together in our first example were very different. This made it difficult for them to understand and trust each other. However, a shared experience improved their relationships. “What broke through was when they travelled together,” said James. “The first thing that they really shared in common was this experience.”

James reflected that, as in any walk of life, the best way to build trust is through face-to-face interaction and a shared understanding of each other. “We need social capital to work effectively, and that takes time.” 

Failure to launch

Logistical issues can also derail projects. “Where it struggles is the next step: who is going to take the mantle and run with this?” said Vivien Carli, Program Manager at the Gordon Foundation. 

With more than a decade’s experience in the non-profit sector, Carli has found collaboration mechanisms to be a frequent barrier to turning conversations into action. “There’s a discussion, ideas are put on the table — now how do we actually collaborate?”

This tends to be easier if a mechanism is already in place. In Montreal, for example, the Community Impact Project (CIP), discussed in a previous Future of Good article, has an administrative structure in place through United Way Centraide. 

Whether there’s a ready-made structure or not, “you need to have a mechanism for how you work together that’s suitable for the project,” said Phillips. 

Working across the public sector can add complications that may be a little harder to iron out. Collaborating with government can be particularly difficult because of how their contracts work. “It’s very hard to fund, as a government, collaborative work,” said Phillips. “We need more collaborative instruments.”

Even with the right mechanism, organizations need to make a deep commitment. Leaders must buy into collaborative projects and dedicate time to them —but this can be costly. 

“Often, foundations or governments have had relatively short time horizons, and you’re dealing with issues that take longer to address,” Phillips pointed out. For example, foundations may be looking ahead to the next funding round, and governments to the next election. 

From grantmaker to changemaker

With good communication and smart strategic decisions, foundations can and have worked through all these challenges. As our example of the four different foundations shows, even the most contrasting organizations can find ways to understand and trust each other.

According to Phillips, there is a real potential for far more cross-sector collaboration than we’re currently seeing, but foundations often prefer to manage their own projects. “There still tends to be a competitiveness or branding or image, and that means there is a tendency to go it alone,” she said. “In order to collaborate, you have to make that shift from just being a grantmaker to an active changemaker.”

While working collaboratively may mean choosing a more complex path, it also has the most potential for genuine change. “If you do a collaboration, you should do it because you really believe it’s the only way to get a better outcome,” said James. “I think collaboration is absolutely essential if we are to get anywhere.”