6 Steps to Ensure Successful Cross-Sector Partnerships



I recently had the privilege of moderating a panel with four leading employers on the business value of building talent pipelines to bring Opportunity Youth into the workplace. Throughout that conversation, which focused on time-to-hire, retention, diversity, and employee engagement, the employers repeatedly spoke about the community-based organizations that are essential partners in this work. Each of these business leaders understood that they were more successful in expanding their talent pools because of the tremendous expertise their partners bring to these endeavors.

Cross-sector partnerships are valuable because they allow innovative business and non-profit leaders to advance goals that they cannot readily make progress on alone. Collaboration can yield substantial benefit, as partners bring different, often complementary assets to a relationship. When leaders across sectors find the space where the corporation’s business needs intersect with the nonprofit’s mission, they can work together toward an outcome that is a mutual win/win. Through my own experience and observations, I have found that there are 6 main steps to creating effective cross-sector partnerships:

Take the Time to Develop Shared Goals and a Common Mission

Leaders who have been involved in successful partnerships stress the importance of spending time up front to identify a common problem and develop shared goals and a common mission. Some experienced cross-sector collaborators believe that it is a best practice to have an explicit negotiation before a partnership, or even to record an agreement in a memorandum of understanding.

Besides allowing partners to identify areas of mutual interest, a formal discussion gives business and non-profit leaders the opportunity to set expectations about a range of issues, such as the roles of the parties, timelines, and indicators of success. It is particularly important to have explicit conversations about desired outcomes and timing, because businesses and non-profits may have differing expectations about the timeframes in which projects will be completed.

Understand the Dynamics of Business Need

Leaders in the corporate sector know well that any effective partnership must meet a business need in order to be sustainable. They are equally aware that business needs can be defined broadly, including such areas as employee recruitment, training, and retention, being a good community member or corporate citizen.

Some non-profit leaders may not fully understand the importance of meeting a business need or the breadth of the concept. They might know that “business lives and dies by the bottom line,” without understanding the varied ways in which corporate leaders fulfill their business needs and have a positive impact on the bottom line. The most effective partnerships tend to arise when non-profit leaders are able to emphasize the business case for a partnership and when corporate leaders recognize how a nonprofit organization’s mission can dovetail with its business needs.

Respect the Credibility and Capacity of Partners

Another necessary component of any effective partnership is respect for the credibility and capacity of partners. The easiest way to do this is to choose partners who have a strong reputation in their respective fields. One corporate leader I spoke with explained that their company chooses its partners because they “are credible, very strong organizations that are leaders in their field and they bring expertise or access to expertise.”

In addition to respect, a strong partnership requires trust. Spending time at the outset of a partnership to develop shared goals and clear expectations has the added benefit of allowing the parties to get more familiar with each other and build the foundation for a trusting relationship.

Secure the Support of Leadership

There are a range of views among corporate and non-profit collaborators about how involved senior leadership should be in forging a partnership. Some non-profit leaders express that it is important to negotiate a partnership “as high up the corporate ladder as possible,” which is a perspective that is not very widespread among business leaders.

Instead, the predominant corporate view is that partnerships are most effective when negotiated by a respected manager in the company who can advocate for a partnership and “run it up the corporate chain.” Despite these differing opinions about senior leadership’s involvement in initiating partnerships, business and nonprofit collaborators agree that the support of top-level executives is essential to the long-term success of a partnership.

Dedicate Staff to Manage the Partnership

Corporate and non-profit leaders both express that it is critical to have staff dedicated to managing a partnership. These staff may or may not be the same individuals who initiated the cross-sector collaboration. In any case, dedicated staff are essential to the success of partnerships because they serve as a bridge between the parties, facilitating relationship building and consistent communication. This is especially important for large corporations and non-profits that hope to foster collaboration across multiple divisions or sites.

Building and maintaining relationships with partners across sectors takes both time and capacity. As such, it is important for businesses and non-profits to plan for the staffing of a partnership in order to ensure its success.

Measure the Effectiveness of the Partnership

Lastly, corporate and non-profit collaborators should take steps to measure their impact and to improve on their work. Statistician William E. Deming spoke wisely when he said, “In God we trust; all others bring data.” In order to ensure that they have a program and practices that work, leaders involved in a partnership must have a reliable, methodical way to assess whether they are achieving the goals they established at the outset.

It’s only by measuring impact that collaborators are able to determine whether their activities are worth their investment of time and resources. Additionally, measuring impact allows the partners to understand where they have room for improvement and what they should adjust to maximize their results. The most effective partners use data to reevaluate their model and adapt to changing conditions to serve business needs and social mission most effectively.

At Grads of Life, we are big believers in partnerships because virtually every successful pipeline for Opportunity Youth we have documented involves some collaboration between an employer and an education or non-profit organization. Employers can find strong partners in their communities in the partner directory at here. These partnerships take an investment of time and a commitment to function effectively; and when they work well they yield tremendous value to all parties involved.




Elyse Rosenblum is the Principal of Grads of Life.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Innovation, Management & Leadership, Partnerships,
Related News
View All News
AHLA President Highlights Hotel Industry Economic Impact On Nation’s Cities At U.S. Conference Of Mayors
January 30th, 2018 | By Grads of Life

American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) president and CEO Katherine Lugar today pledged to partner with U.S. mayors...Read More

Hotel Trade Groups Seek Solutions To Labor-Shortage Problem
January 30th, 2018 | By Grads of Life

LOS ANGELES -- At the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS), U.S. and Canadian hotel trade groups announced programs to...Read More

Strong Social Enterprises Boost Individual Lives And The Nation's Economy
June 8th, 2017 | By Grads of Life

When the baseball season started and new youth started their jobs at our sites in Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco, and...Read More