Lessons from StriveTogether in engaging business leaders in cross-sector initiatives

StriveTogether Business EngagementEngaging the business community is a key element of any intersector collaboration. And it is particularly meaningful in initiatives that focus on aligning community-based education with local workforce needs.

Key Beck, a culture and inclusion professional, recently wrote about the challenge of engaging business sector partners for StriveTogether, a nonprofit organization that uses the collective impact model in working with communities across the nation to create “local education ecosystems” that support children from cradle to career.

Beck writes that business engagement can take different forms in different collaborations — something we see across the forty cases in our Case Library. Consider these three cases of differing business engagement in collaborative initiatives:

  • In creating the novel P-TECH high school in New York City, IBM provided input into P-TECH’s curriculum to ensure alignment with industry-sought academic, technical, and workplace skills. IBM also drives workplace learning through mentorships, worksite visits, speakers, and internships.
  • At Great Bay Community College — where partners joined to create a manufacturing site for a new type of fan blade and an advanced education and work-training curriculum in aerospace technology — Safran USA and Albany Engineered Composites provided technology and financial resources, shared technical knowledge to help build a curriculum, and hired graduates of the advanced education program.
  • In building Partners for A Competitive Workforce in Cincinnati, local businesses from healthcare, construction, advanced manufacturing, and IT industries donate time and energy to develop curriculum for training programs, often assuming leadership positions in industry-specific workgroups. Businesses also supply key information and feedback on skills, and consider hiring pathway participants. Active members also contribute advocacy support with policy makers. 

Drawing lessons from a Harvard Business School’s US Competitiveness Project case study of StriveTogether cradle to career initiatives around the country, Beck emphasizes three types of barriers when engaging business community partners:

  • relational challenges, evidenced by a collaboration in which business leaders perceived that “politics” was the dominant rationale for past decisions
  • challenges that arise from the inability of business leaders to observe the impact of their investment
  • challenges that relate to the cultural differences between business and education sectors

City Heights Partnership in San Diego, which suffered from relational challenges, advanced two strategies to engage businesses: leveraging philanthropic leaders to attract support and leaning on the United Way to “identify, recruit, and convene a business advisory board of C-level executives,” ensuring business is engaged through the initiative and “especially at the leadership table.” This relates to a tactic The Intersector Project Toolkit refers to as Establish a Governance Structure. In giving business leaders a clear place in the structure of the partnership, initiatives can create investment by nurturing consistent, meaningful engagement and consent.

To encourage business engagement in Toledo, an initiative called Aspire “reported out regularly to a board of directors, many of them C-suite executives.” This regular reporting highlights the tactic Manage Expectations of Process and Results, which is the capacity to communicate progress and celebrate success. Collaborations often take longer than expected because partners are obliged to work in ways that take into account the practices and priorities of other sectors. Collaborations can encourage patience among partners by communicating progress and celebrating success, which instills confidence and commitment.

Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, which experienced challenges due to cultural differences between business and education sectors, attracted business through a commitment to efficiency and information sharing. “Having a few business leaders involved from the beginning who know there is no ‘silver bullet’ to improving educational outcomes and who appreciate the complexity of this kind of work helps tremendously to bring along their peers,” said Jeff Edmondson, Managing Director of  StriveTogether.

When collaborations tap into the power of a few business leaders to attract others, they employ a tactic The Intersector Project Toolkit refers to as Recruit a Powerful Sponsor or Champion — the engagement of a person, a group of persons, or an organization committed to leveraging their influence, resources, and skills to assist the collaboration in achieving its objectives. Well-respected, influential individuals or organizations can provide access to resources, lend legitimacy and prestige, and attract public attention.

As Beck points out, “many partnerships have been successful at engaging the business sector, but often not without a fair share of frustrations and setbacks.” The examples raised in the StriveTogether case study — as well as in The Intersector Project Case Library — offer lessons for practitioners who are seeking to engage the expertise and resource of private sector leaders in tackling complex problems.