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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Cross-Sector Collaboration: The train to community impact

“Proposition 22: The normal expectation ought to be that success will be very difficult to achieve in cross-sector collaborations.” - John Bryson, et al., "The Design and Implementation of Cross-Sector Collaborations"

Collaboration is emerging as a popular vehicle to solve complicated problems that our communities face. So much, in fact, that organizations are boarding the train without a map, a travel bag, and even a destination. Worse yet, they have not considered the repercussions of boarding the collaboration train. Collaborations require a high level of understanding and resource investment. There are resources, frameworks, and institutes dedicated to study of cross-sector collaboration, but all collaborators heed the proposition above, “success will be very difficult.”

You may ask, “Why worry?”

It is as likely that a “wrong” collaboration can lead to detrimental reverberations through all sectors, as that the “right” collaboration can lead to positive system-wide change.

Regardless of the player considering cross-sector collaboration - CEO, government official, or nonprofit CEO/board executive - the goal is that each sector understands that there are strengths, weaknesses, and skills that should be collectively leveraged to engineer an integrative solution aimed at their community target. So what are the problems?

The Problems:

  • Sector institutional logics: Each sector has a logic that affects the willingness of a sector to agree on a project. The private logic values efficiency, public logic values bureaucratic adherence, and social sector logic values inclusive participation. This disparity affects what collaborators view as legitimate. This can cause friction in the formation of process and plan.
  • Legitimacy: An organization has one name, and its legitimacy is based on its mission, vision, and execution. Collaboration across sectors will be met with judgment, positive and negative, so being cognizant of potential legitimacy consequences is vital.
  • Power imbalances: Resources are valued differently by each sector. Financial resources are a catalyst, but this should not create an environment in which one partner is valued more than the others. This power imbalance can create resentment, frustration, and a loss of commitment to “the cause.”
  • Trust: Collaboration has been deemed one of the hardest vehicles to steer because of the moving parts across sectors and amidst a constantly shifting society. Mistrust in partners will be detrimental to the longevity of any collaboration.

Components of a successful cross-sector collaboration:

  • The Purpose: Every stakeholder must hold onto the purpose! Remember why your organization has left the comfort of your four walls…you could not do it by yourself. The purpose should be a commitment for all. Determining the purpose collectively will help to develop trust and the “destination”.
  • The Process: The problems listed above are preventable. The remedy though is a lengthy and exhaustive processing of mission, purpose, vision, establishing of roles, sharing of strengths and weaknesses, preparation for power imbalances and conflicts, structure and governance, and planning. This is the “train” on the tracks.
  • The People: Having the right people around the table is incredibly important. In particular, the collaborative needs to assess if there is a perspective or resource that is needed to advance toward the purpose. Additionally, a neutral facilitator, the sponsor who brings reputation and networks, and the champion who rallies the team, are extremely vital to leading the train toward the destination.
  • The Plan: Without collectively established objectives and activities the collaboration will remain at a standstill. Most importantly, establish objectives and activities reflective of the size and resources that the collaboration can contribute. If one organization can achieve the same objectives alone, the collaboration should reevaluate for more significant impact. This is the fuel for the train.
  • The Assessment: This will be extremely difficult as each organization may have different entities to be accountable to, but tracking inputs, outputs, and outcomes will help the collective decide whether to add more perspectives, adjust objectives, disband, or keep going. The assessment is comparable to the train inspection and checking the compass.

Cross-sector collaboration is a unique vehicle for solving some of the most difficult world problems. Yes, a successful collaboration may be difficult to achieve, and proposition 22 should be mentioned in every collaborative meeting. Take the risk. With the right balance of caution, preparation, and intrigue it is believed that cross-sector collaborations can produce micro-, meso-, and macro-level impact on some of the world’s most daunting challenges.

Now, board the train with confidence!



Bryson, John, Barbara Crosby, and Melissa Stone. “The Design and Implementation of Cross-Sector Collaborations: Propositions from the Literature”. Public Administration Review, Volume 66, Issue Supplement s1, pages 44-55, December 2006.


Grant is a student at ASU, a Team Lead at Target, and a husband to a fellow Sundevil! He is also the oldest son of retired Air Force parents who instilled in him an inquisitiveness and a drive to find solutions. His passion is his community and he is intent on solving what can be done to create an active network not content with complacency. His studies have lead him to a capstone question: What are the necessary components of a successful cross-sector collaboration?


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