When you consider any of society’s most pressing problems, from homelessness to climate change to economic inequality, it’s clear that no one person, program or system can solve those challenges alone.
For example, homelessness is a complex problem at the intersection of housing affordability, healthcare, the justice system, and more. You’d be hard pressed to find a sector that doesn’t have a role in solving the climate crisis. Economic inequality encompasses education, the private sector, health care, transportation, the list goes on and on.
So why, despite a clear need to work across sectors to solve stubborn problems, are cross-sector partnerships the exception, not the rule?
Below are three reasons why I think cross-sector partnership are uncommon, and how I think funders can build bridges between systems to tackle big, complex challenges.
Challenge 1: Systems are perfectly designed to produce the exact results they’re getting.
Accepting that systems that are producing terrible results are designed to do so is hard. Most people believe systems that are producing terrible results are malfunctioning in some way. If the system was working properly, the story goes, the results would be different.
Take homelessness in King County, WA as an example.
On any given night in King County, there are 11,000 experiencing homelessness. It’s a full-blown crisis, and yet, at the very time we should all be working together to respond in a comprehensive, coordinated way, we often do the opposite.
On the government side, funding streams to address homelessness come from the federal, county and city governments. Each entity controls its own dollars, has its own priorities, and pursues different solutions. No one is in really charge.
On the private side, we’ve replicated this problem. At the Raikes Foundation, we’ve prioritized ending youth homelessness, but other funders emphasize family homelessness, veterans, or chronic or unsheltered homelessness.
Each individual government agency, foundation, and service provider is acting completely rationally, but overall the system is fragmented, and it’s not producing good results, save for a few bright spots. Imagine if hundreds of fire fighters were working to save a burning building, but they were not coordinated or talking to one another. They might make a little progress individually, but the odds of saving the building are pretty low.
One way funders can combat fragmentation and poor system design is to step back and try and see the system as a whole. How is the system currently designed and what are the results it is producing? Who’s playing what role in the system (including funders) and why? Where are we missing opportunities? Where have we neglected root causes? Who can and should be working together, but isn’t yet?
Funders can also build the table needed to bring people together to see that whole system. Which brings me to the next challenge…
Challenge 2: It's no one's job to work across sectors.
The most obvious answer for why cross-sector partnerships are the exception, not the rule, is because they’re no one’s job. Very few organizations, agencies, or companies, employ someone who’s sole job is to reach out to other big systems and facilitate coordination. We work in our silos, and most of us have more than enough to do within our own systems without adding the organizational challenges of involving other systems.
Here’s where philanthropy can help: We can make it our job to build the tables that bring people together. And we can invest in the capacity necessary to make cross-sector partnerships enduring and effective.
For example, one of the investments the Raikes Foundation has made this year is in support of a community action plan to address homelessness. Along with other funders, we’re supporting nationally recognized experts on housing and homelessness to work with the community to develop a plan that weaves together solutions from multiple sectors—housing, healthcare, education, and more—to tackle the myriad root causes of homelessness. We’re also exploring investments in an organization whose mission will be to bring together government agencies, service providers, funders, the business community, people with first-hand experience, and the public to work together to drive toward meaningful reductions in homelessness.
Cross-sector work is challenging, and without real investment in collaboration and organization, the odds of those things happening organically, in a sustained way are slim. As funders, we can and should invest in collaborative efforts, but one final challenge can hold back the efficacy of partnerships.
Challenge 3: True partnerships are hard, especially where there is a lack of trust.
When funders talk about how we can be effective, it's often in areas that are external. What we can we fund? What can we advocate for?
Those things are important, but funders need to also look inward. Trust is a crucial component of an effective partnership but building trust with our partners requires some vulnerability and openness on our part.
For example, one of our community aspirations in redesigning our homeless response system is the commitment to center the voices and needs of people who have and/or are currently experiencing homelessness. This is something that I believe in deeply and am committed to, but in a meeting this past summer with advocates, service providers, people with lived experience, I found myself feeling defensive.
At one point in the meeting, the focus turned to the work the philanthropic sector was supporting, and people started asking questions like, “why should we trust philanthropy?” and “who asked them to work on this in the first place?"
I think these are fair questions to ask, but in that moment, I felt defensive. I found myself wanting to defend myself, my organization and even the broader philanthropic sector.
Rather than react in anger and leave the meeting less motivated to collaborate, I took several deep breaths, noticed how I was feeling, and asked myself about my commitments. Was I committed to being “right” or “liked”, or was I committed to building authentic partnerships, which means being open to feedback, hearing my partners and trying to understand where they were coming from?
I chose to let our partners know how I was feeling and to affirm my commitment to listen and work through these difficult questions, rather than repress those feelings and leave the hard conversations unresolved. It’s not easy, but it’s the kind of authentic conversation that must happen if our partnerships are going to be strong enough to make a difference in the world. When things get difficult, when disagreements arise, partnerships fall apart if they’re not built on mutual trust, authenticity, and commitment.
I’ve learned that trust requires more than organizational commitment; it requires commitment from each of us as individuals. It’s challenging but rewarding, and it’s the kind of work that help us achieve the kind of vibrant, welcoming communities we aspire to.