Jul 19 2016 CSR and cross-sector collaboration: a promising nexus with challenges to confront
Corporate social responsibility. Cross-sector collaboration. Both are phrases that are increasingly common in the discussion of how businesses can help solve the most pressing problems the country faces today. CSR and cross-sector collaboration aim to improve many of the same issues, and it is worth exploring how they intersect and how those involved in CSR can benefit from an approach that focuses more deliberately on building cross-sector partnerships.
At The Intersector Project we define cross-sector collaboration as the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities, and capabilities among two or more sectors — business, government, and non-profit — to jointly achieve an outcome. With local and state governments grappling with diminished resources and with many organizations facing complex public problems, from education to economic development to environmental conservation, sectors are increasingly turning to one another to access outside resources and achieve a shared goal that would be difficult to achieve by one sector alone.
Cross-sector collaboration has much to offer CSR. Cross-sector collaboration can be (and has been) used successfully as a model for CSR efforts and can help CSR move past the stereotype of writing a check without committing to truly improving a public challenge. Working with government and non-profit partners in a way that fosters shared decision making among sectors can help CSR programs inform and refine their objectives to reflect better knowledge of the issue or affected populations; nurture strong, long-term relationships with partners that may be beneficial to future efforts; and enable scalability through joint program design, allowing the program to be replicated by other businesses within the same industry or non-profit organizations that work on a similar issue.
Cross-sector collaboration can be (and has been) used successfully as a model for CSR efforts and can help CSR move past the stereotype of writing a check without committing to truly improving a public challenge.
Cross-sector collaboration is an exciting approach to designing and implementing CSR programs. First, it allows businesses to employ the expertise of non-profit and government partners in social and environmental program design, allowing them to more effectively improve important aspects of their business operations. For example, when Coca-Cola faced pressure to improve its water efficiency and stewardship, its leaders turned to organizations like the World Wildlife Fund for their expertise in this area and worked with USAID’s Global Development Alliance Program. All three sectors collaborated to create sustainable hydropower initiatives, improving water accessibility and infrastructure in locations where Coca-Cola operates and positioning Coca-Cola as an leader in water stewardship.
Moreover, addressing complex issues at the global, national, regional, and local levels in today’s world typically requires the resources of multiple sectors, so partnership increases chances that CSR is really making a difference. Also, cross-sector collaborations are increasingly popular and seen as an indicator that the participating organizations are using innovative approaches to address public issues. The formation of P-TECH (Pathways to Technology High School) in Brooklyn is one example of this. IBM recognized a skills mismatch in the labor market for STEM-driven companies and worked across sectors to create P-TECH, a grades 9-14 school program designed to equip students with the qualifications needed to compete for high-growth jobs in Information Technology. P-TECH opened in 2011 through a collaboration with IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and The City University of New York (CUNY). P-TECH’s goal is to graduate students with a no-cost Associates in Applied Science degree in in-demand fields, to put them on track to enter jobs in the STEM field at companies like IBM.
Cross-sector collaborations are increasingly popular and seen as an indicator that the participating organizations are using innovative approaches to address public issues.
Cross-sector collaboration, like CSR, is not without its challenges and limitations. The simple becomes complex in collaboration because of the differing values, practices, and languages that exist among sectors. These differences manifest in the different processes, protocols, and philosophies that influence methods for analyzing problems and potential solutions, forms of project management, and approaches to evaluating successes. The importance of managing expectations of progress and results is imperative for successful cross-sector partnerships.
The prospects and challenges of both CSR and cross-sector collaboration are still being fully understood, but CSR is a practice and philosophy where partnership is a sensible and relevant component.