When you get the best and the brightest of a field in the same room, common challenges come to light. These challenges shouldn’t discourage anyone from moving the industry forward, but should instead highlight the need for all sectors to work together to overcome them.

Please note that this blog post is “sector agnostic” and aims to be a resource for companies, nonprofit organizations, civil society participants, and governments alike.

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By Christine Johnston

In late October, I had the honour of speaking at IVCO 2014 in Lima, Peru with high-ranking multi-sector delegates from all over the world, all of them involved in the field of international volunteering and development. During the conference, I overheard many practitioners swapping stories of common challenges and some of their innovative solutions when it comes to this year’s theme of cross-sector collaboration for sustainable development.

The Solution Revolution

As was evident at IVCO, the current global trend is that more and more companies are stepping up to collaborate with the traditional players in the public sector and civil society to solve society’s problems. This is the practical realization of The Solution Revolution.

No revolution has ever gone off without a hitch, but if the catalysts driving the charge hadn’t pushed onward and addressed the challenges head-on, the world would be very different today, and not for the better. The Solution Revolution offers incredible potential to change the world. Let’s address these challenges together and keep this revolution alive and well.

The 3 Main Challenges

1) Language

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Before engaging with other sectors, it is important to understand the language and culture of the players you are sitting down to the table with.

Walk into a meeting with a proposal for “capacity building and empowerment programming” and you’ll be met with blank stares.

Walk into a meeting with a nonprofit organization asking for a demonstration of efficiency gains in all quarters and they’ll look at you like they did when you tried singing Taylor Swift’s latest hit at the office Christmas party. Walk into a meeting with a private sector company with a proposal for capacity building and empowerment programming and you will be met with blank stares and plenty of eye rolling.

Does this come from disdain for the other sector? Does it come from refusal to budge? From egos that refuse to listen?

No. More often than not, both parties have the same goal in mind.

Instead, these reactions come from the individuals quite simply having no clue what their counterparts are talking about. You could both be speaking English. You could both be speaking about the same project and have the same goals in mind. But as soon as you pull out the latest industry lingo, you’ve lost each other – and most likely the partnership.

The Solution

Avoid exclusionary, sector-oriented jargon when getting your point across. During your first few meetings with the organizations or companies you hope to collaborate with, discuss some of the common terms and language you use and develop a glossary together. This can be treated as a living document, informing all of your conversations going forward. As soon as you’re speaking the same language, your common goals will become clear.

2) Culture

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In this context culture does not necessarily refer to food, geography, and/or local traditions. Each organization and company has its own organizational culture that consists of customs, norms, and non-negotiables. A common barrier to successful cross-sector collaboration is the lack of cultural adaptation on both sides of the partnership. This limits the potential of buy-in and intrinsic motivation of the key agents and decision makers within the partnership.

 “They want it done yesterday” was a common complaint. 

These days, culture normally comes second to strategies, such as Shared Value. However, if you happen to violate a custom or present a non-negotiable as the golden ticket for the partnership, your counterpart may have already checked out of the conversation. This is not to say that strategy is not important, but rather that it needs to be put into context with the boundaries that already exist in the room. As the Co-Founder of Realized Worth, Angela Parker has recently asserted that it is only when the focus remains on a combination of strategy and culture, never sacrificing one for the other, where programs have the potential to achieve higher than ever impacts in the community.

What is an example of cultural differences between sectors?

In Lima, the most consistent feedback I received from nonprofits and civil society participants was that working with the private sector was challenging due to the pace they seemed to expect a project to go. They want it done yesterday was a common complaint. In offices where resources are often stretched thin, this get-it-done attitude from the private sector  is not appreciated. When organizations refuse to alter their common practices and compromise with their partners, they will not be in the collaborating space for long.

The Solution

It is important to acknowledge these types of cultural differences, of course, but it is equally important to synch up cultures, in this case the pace of work. This ensures efforts continue to be collaborative rather than dominated by one party or the other.

However, there are some instances in which the corporate culture and organizational culture of the respective organizations are incompatible. That’s OK. In fact, it is extremely important this be acknowledged, especially when looking to create relationships for longterm and sustainable collaboration. Companies regularly preform risk assessments on potential partner organizations, and decision makers in all sectors should be doing the same.

3) Power Dynamics

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A common challenge discussed was the power dynamics potentially at play between the sectors. The private sector has the resources and the cheque book; the nonprofit sector has local knowledge and the trust of the community; the public sector has legislation and political clout. When one or all are held as bargaining chips, it can sour the conversation before it even begins. Instead of a collaboration, you’ve entered into a transaction with little hope for sustainability.

Dialogue, and ultimately the partnership, must be approached as a two-way street rather than a one-way transaction.

This is especially true at the individual level when placing corporate volunteers in nonprofit organizations. If the employees of the nonprofit do not accept the corporate volunteer because they are not “one of them,” or the corporate volunteer approaches the volunteer opportunity only acknowledging their value, these attitudes will endanger the success of the activity in question and potentially the partnership as a whole.

The Solution

During engagement with other sectors, it is best to start out by putting yourself in their shoes. How would I feel if they presented their proposal to me in this way? Would I feel valued for what I bring to the table or would I feel like a recipient of an opportunistic transaction?

Dialogue, and ultimately the partnership, must be approached as a two-way street rather than a one-way transaction. This equal footing is essential for the sustainability of the relationship. To do this you will need to build respect and trust with your counterpart to ensure the partnership will continue to be a collaborative and not transactional. Without these investments at the start, you will continue to see piecemeal cross-sector ventures you currently see in this space.

Ready, set, go!

Despite these challenges, the common sentiment I overheard at IVCO 2014 was that we are better together. This seemed to ring true for the conference goers, no matter what sector they represented. To continue the Solution Revolution and ultimately change the world, all sectors will have to work together. So how do you get started?

Realized Worth is in a unique position to offer advice on cross-sector collaboration as all our consultants have experience in more than one sector. Amongst us, we represent a wealth of experience in the government, nonprofit and private sectors. With this diversity of experience, our consulting services bring a unique and inclusive perspective to the work you are doing and collaborations you are pursuing. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, or send us an email at contact@realizedworth.com.

Share your experience

Have you had a particularly successful or challenging partnership with another sector? Send your thoughts to the RW team or comment below. We would love to hear from you!

Christine Johnston
Consultant, Project Manager, Realized Worth
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