On cross-sector collaboration, from a leading teacher of NGO strategic management

May 31, 2017

In fall 2015, Hart Research Associates convened six focus groups on behalf of The Intersector Project to explore citizens’ views toward the business, government, and non-profit sectors and toward cross-sector collaboration. The key takeaways from those discussions are the subject of this report.

Citizens generally supported greater collaboration among the sectors to pool strengths toward tackling community problems. When asked about who is responsible for solving community problems, focus group participants did not mention cross-sector collaboration. But citizens responded very favorably when the idea of the three sectors working together to solve problems was introduced as a potential approach to addressing problems.

While there was general support among citizens for collaboration, there was not active demand for it. While citizens felt that collaboration is productive, for the most part they did not feel that it is essential. They would like to see more of it but did not seem to see it as a “breakthrough” that will solve previously intractable problems.  While citizens did not intuitively see the world as divided among sectors, they did view the government, non-profit, and business sectors differently, associating each with differing styles, assets, and limitations.

Citizens’ Views on Solving Community Problems Citizens shared common views of the most important issues and problems facing their communities. Whether they work in the private sector, for a non-profit, or in the public sector, and whether Republicans or Democrats, citizens saw a similar set of issues and problems facing their communities.

While citizens identified similar problems facing their communities, there was less agreement on potential solutions — besides a general impression that community issues are the domain of local government and sometimes average citizens.

Making the Case for Cross-sector Collaboration

In making the case for cross-sector collaboration as a solution to community problems, messages that focused on the benefits of collaboration resonated more than those that focused on the barriers that must be overcome in order to collaborate successfully. Citizens responded better to some phrases describing cross-sector collaboration than to others. The two phrases with the greatest appeal were “multi-sector collaboration” and “multi-sector partnerships.”  

Stories of successful collaboration tended to resonate with citizens when they explained how the collaboration succeeded where past efforts had not, clarified that all three sectors contributed to the partnership, and focused on concrete community outcomes.  Practitioners are urged to tell the stories of their collaboration — both to educate the public on their work and to increase public awareness of cross-sector collaboration as a potential means to solve complex  public problems.

Bryson, J., Crosby, & Stone, M. (2015). Designing and implementing cross-sector collaborations: Needed and challenging. Public Administration Review, (75)5, 647-663.  Covered in the Intersector.


Editor’s Note:  Bryson & Crosby are the authors of a key text in non-profit strategic management.  


A more detailed overview of their report is below, from Frank Weil, Chairman of The Intersector Project

Perhaps more than ever before, addressing problems  in our modern life requires navigating across the government, business, and non-profit sectors. Yet these sectors often have differing languages, cultures, and practices that can make it challenging to work together.  The intersector is the space where actors from these sectors can establish trust and share expertise, resources, and authority to address problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone.

While the public often points to government as the root of modern problems, what average citizens are really clamoring for is better governance — a better process for solving public problems. And the simple fact is that governance today requires more than just government.

Yet cross-sector collaboration is not yet top of mind for most people — perhaps surprising considering that, more and more, most of society’s problems cannot be solved in one sector alone.

Citizens are a critical part of the movement to improve how government works with other sectors. It’s a well- known fact that public leaders take the temperature of their constituencies, and that citizens have the capacity to influence their actions. So how citizens think about government-, business-, and non-profit-sector collaboration can ultimately have real-world implications. Ideally, citizen support leads to calls and letters sent to elected officials to share opinions about the need for publicly beneficial collaboration; support for relevant legislation that enables and supports better cross-sector collaboration; and citizens taking community problems into their own hands by reaching out to representatives from the many sectors and silos that affect and are affected by the problems they want to solve.

Because citizens are so important, The Intersector Project worked with Hart Research Associates to convene focus groups to explore citizens’ views toward the sectors and toward government-, business-, and non-profit-sector collaboration.  What we found through six sessions in three cities with a total of about 60 people is the subject of this report – some of which we expected to find, and some of which was surprising. The surprising thing is the degree to which virtually everyone seems to think that government should be the main sector responsible for leading cross-sector collaboration. What is not surprising is that most people agree and understand that if the sectors get together and acknowledge that they share a common interest in a common problem, they can achieve more than they possibly could alone.

We hope this report serves as a launch pad for leaders to understand how to communicate their cross-sector work effectively to members of the public — leading citizens to become more aware, interested, and invested in the cross-sector collaboration as an effective way to solve problems in their communities.  We also invite readers to visit intersector.com. Our Toolkit, library of forty case studies, and other resources are a good first step to building and communicating collaborative solutions of your own.

In fall 2015, Hart Research Associates convened six focus groups on behalf of The Intersector Project to explore citizens’ views toward the business, government, and non-profit sectors and toward cross-sector collaboration.  These sessions were held with citizens working in each of the three sectors, with one group composed of business-sector workers, one of non-profit-sector workers, one of public-sector workers, and one of individuals with experience working in at least two sectors. Because levels of trust in the different sectors may vary by political partisanship, Hart Research Associates also conducted a group with informed Democratic voters and one with informed Republican voters; these groups were composed of citizens working in all three sectors. Two groups were held in each of three locations: New York, Chicago, and Raleigh, North Carolina. Participants in these focus groups represented rank-and-file voters, blue-collar workers, managers, and leaders. Key takeaways from the focus groups are presented in this report.

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  2. State (2017). The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. Retrieved from http://www.ncppp.org/resources/research-information/ state-legislation/
  3. Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs. (2007). User guidebook on implementing public-private partnerships for transportation infrastructure projects in the United States.
  4. Boston (2014). Mayoral policy making: Results from the 21st Century Mayors Leadership survey. Boston, MA: Levine Einstein, C., Glick, D.M. & Lusk K.
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We should also consider the importance of resources and assistance to enable practitioners to share their work and results with individuals not actively engaged in or aware of cross-sector collaboration. Not only can these organizations help practitioners do this work, they can also take on this role themselves, sharing their insights on cross-sector collaboration to a broad audience. We also believe there is an opportunity here for media to more effectively cover cross-sector collaboration, both to hold public agencies and officials accountable for their work in these collaborations and to increase the public’s knowledge of this approach as a potential solution to complex problems.