Preconditions for Cross-sector Collaboration

chris-thompson-blogBy Chris Thompson

The Fund for Our Economic Future is an unusual cross-sector collaboration that supports other cross-sector efforts to advance economic growth and increased access to economic opportunity in Northeast Ohio. For more than a dozen years, the Fund’s members have waded deep into the messy process of engaging diverse stakeholders to develop strategies that catalyze job creation, job preparation, and job access in our region. Fund strategies to advance entrepreneurship, industry development, and job preparation have been promoted by the White House and studied by communities across the globe. Our collaboration has attracted members from philanthropy, government, business, and the non-profit sector who have collectively raised more than $100 million to support this work.

Fund members have certainly learned a lot about what works when it comes to catalyzing economic transformation — and because the Fund is rooted in philanthropy it has invested heavily in evaluating the effectiveness of the strategies. But it wasn’t until this year that the Fund stepped back to take a closer look at what it’s learned about how to work.

It was my privilege this year to capture the Fund’s lessons in how to design and sustain effective cross-sector collaborations in a handbook, entitled simply Collaboration, published by the Fund in October. This handbook captures the Fund’s “collaboration know-how:” the hard-learned lessons from working on a wide variety of collaborations at the neighborhood, community, and regional level.

The purpose of the handbook was to not only help the Fund improve its own collaborative efforts, but also to help civic leaders who wish to support cross-sector collaborations avoid some of the most basic mistakes and to benefit from the Fund’s experience.

Perhaps the most common mistake of all is assuming that collaboration is possible. Leaders often recognize that collaboration is necessary to achieve change — particularly when it comes to addressing wicked, persistent problems like income disparity, long-term unemployment, and structural racism. When a community successfully tackles such wicked challenges through effective cross-sector collaboration, invariably other communities try to follow the recipe, only to discover that their efforts only result in “coblaboration” — the evil cousin of collaboration that results in redundant meetings, many opinions, and little change.

Funders can pour a lot of money into trying to replicate a collaboration, but unless the necessary preconditions are in place, all the money in the world won’t catalyze enduring, positive community change. In Collaboration, we identify three preconditions that make cross-sector collaboration possible:

  • Compelling Cause: There are many causes within our communities that are targets for our complaints but aren’t sufficiently compelling to prompt us and others to change behavior. Only a compelling cause will keep a diverse set of stakeholders at the table when the collaboration process gets challenging. Advocates of change often are disappointed to learn that other stakeholders aren’t compelled to disrupt the status quo but rather are only prepared to complain.
  • Galvanizing Leadership: Holding independent stakeholders together through the grueling collaboration process – particularly in its early stages – requires a specific kind of leadership. Galvanizing leadership unites diverse stakeholders and keeps the focus on the shared goals when the going gets tough.
  • High-performing Organizations: The Fund has learned the folly of asking non-profits with little capacity and modest track records to collaborate. In these cases, funders would often be much better off investing in improving the performance of individual organizations than pushing for collaboration.

Funders interested in supporting cross-sector collaboration can take steps to help the community create the preconditions. For example, the Fund sponsored research that helped leaders in Summit County, Ohio, better understand the cost and consequences of an ineffective talent development system. That research, and a shared learning process that accompanied it, helped build the compelling cause to redesign a long-standing organization so that it could effectively disrupt the status quo within that system. So even though it was apparent from the beginning that collaboration was necessary to improve job preparation outcomes in Summit, the Fund’s members worked for more than a year to make sure the preconditions were present before designing (and funding) a cross-sector collaboration.

The Fund hopes that by sharing these and other lessons in Collaboration, we will help others avoid coblaboration and catalyze more enduring, positive change. If you’d like to receive copies of the handbook, please email

Chris Thompson is the author of Collaboration, a handbook published by the Fund for Our Economic Future. He is president of Civic Collaboration Consultants LLC, and worked as Director of Regional Engagement for the Fund from 2007 to 2016.