Research Briefing, May 2018

blogimage_researchbriefingEach month, there is new, fascinating research emerging that provides practical insight into how the government, business, and non-profit sectors partner to address society’s most pressing problems. To keep our readers up to date on this work, which comes from a variety of academic and non-academic sources, we compile a monthly briefing and publish it on our blog — for researchers who want to stay up to date on progress in the field of cross-sector collaboration and practitioners who are interested in how this research may be applicable to their work.

This month’s briefing includes articles about:

  • the role of framing in cross-sector partnerships,
  • how to understand the complexity of your collaboration and adjust your learning strategy,
  • harnessing wicked problems in multi-stakeholder partnerships,
  • whether involvement in cross-sector collaboration leads to higher non-profit capacity,
  • cross-sector interaction and system change in disaster response,
  • challenges and opportunities in health care pay-for-success projects, and
  • mechanisms a backbone organization can use to make social change in a collective impact initiative.

Maintenance of Cross-Sector Partnerships: The Role of Frames in Sustained Collaboration,” Journal of Business Ethics, Elizabeth J. Klitsie, Shahzad Ansari, and Henk W. Volberda

Abstract: We examine the framing mechanisms used to maintain a cross-sector partnership (XSP) that was created to address a complex long-term social issue. We study the first 8 years of existence of an XSP that aims to create a market for recycled phosphorus, a nutrient that is critical to crop growth but whose natural reserves have dwindled significantly. Drawing on 27 interviews and over 3000 internal documents, we study the evolution of different frames used by diverse actors in an XSP. We demonstrate the role of framing in helping actors to avoid some of the common pitfalls for an XSP, such as debilitating conflict, and in creating sufficient common ground to sustain collaboration. As opposed to a commonly held assumption in the XSP literature, we find that collaboration in a partnership does not have to result in a unanimous agreement around a single or convergent frame regarding a contentious issue. Rather, successful collaboration between diverse partners can also be achieved by maintaining a productive tension between different frames through ‘optimal’ frame plurality — not excessive frame variety that may prevent agreements from emerging, but the retention of a select few frames and the deletion of others toward achieving a narrowing frame bandwidth. One managerial implication is that resources need not be focussed on reaching a unanimous agreement among all partners on a single mega-frame vis-à-vis a contentious issue, but can instead be used to kindle a sense of unity in diversity that allows sufficient common ground to emerge, despite the variety of actors and their positions.

Capturing Collaborative Challenges: Designing Complexity-Sensitive Theories of Change for Cross-Sector Partnerships,” Journal of Business Ethics, Rob van Tulder and Nienke Keen

Abstract: “Systems change requires complex interventions. Cross-sector partnerships (CSPs) face the daunting task of addressing complex societal problems by aligning different backgrounds, values, ideas and resources. A major challenge for CSPs is how to link the type of partnership to the intervention needed to drive change. Intervention strategies are thereby increasingly based on Theories of Change (ToCs). Applying ToCs is often a donor requirement, but it also reflects the ambition of a partnership to enhance its transformative potential. The current use of ToCs in partnering efforts varies greatly. There is a tendency for a linear and relatively simple use of ToCs that does limited justice to the complexity of the problems partnerships aim to address. Since partnership dynamics are already complex and challenging themselves, confusion and disagreement over the appropriate application of ToCs is likely to hamper rather than enhance the transformative potential of partnerships. We develop a complexity alignment framework and a diagnostic tool that enables partnerships to better appreciate the complexity of the context in which they operate, allowing them to adjust their learning strategy. This paper applies recent insights into how to deal with complexity from both the evaluation and theory of change fields to studies investigating the transformative capacity of partnerships. This can (1) serve as a check to define the challenges of partnering projects and (2) can help delineate the societal sources and layers of complexity that cross-sector partnerships deal with such as failure, insufficient responsibility taking, and collective action problems at four phases of partnering.”

Harnessing Wicked Problems in Multi-stakeholder Partnerships,” Journal of Business Ethics, Domenico Dentoni, Verena Bitzer, and Greetje Schouten

Abstract: “Despite the burgeoning literature on the governance and impact of cross-sector partnerships in the past two decades, the debate on how and when these collaborative arrangements address globally relevant problems and contribute to systemic change remains open. Building upon the notion of wicked problems and the literature on governing such wicked problems, this paper defines harnessing problems in multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs) as the approach of taking into account the nature of the problem and of organizing governance processes accordingly. The paper develops an innovative analytical framework that conceptualizes MSPs in terms of three governance processes (deliberation, decision-making and enforcement) harnessing three key dimensions of wicked problems (knowledge uncertainty, value conflict and dynamic complexity). The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil provides an illustrative case study on how this analytical framework describes and explains organizational change in partnerships from a problem-based perspective. The framework can be used to better understand and predict the complex relationships between MSP governance processes, systemic change, and societal problems, but also as a guiding tool in (re-)organizing governance processes to continuously re-assess the problems over time and address them accordingly.”

Does Cross-Sector Collaboration Lead to Higher Non-profit Capacity?,”  Journal of Business Ethics, Michelle Shumate, Jiawei Sophia Fu, and Katherine R. Cooper

Abstract: “Cross-sector social partnership (CSSP) case-based theory and research have long argued that non-profits that engage in more integrative and enduring cross-sector partnerships should increase their organizational capacity. By increasing their capacity, non-profits increase their ability to contribute to systemic change. The current research investigates this claim in a large-scale empirical research study. In particular, this study examines whether non-profits that have a greater number of integrated cross-sector partnerships have greater capacities for financial management, strategic planning, external communication, board leadership, mission orientation, and staff management than non-profits that have other types of interorganizational relationships. Moreover, it examines whether the length of these partnerships is associated with better capacity. Hierarchical multiple regression analysis drawn from surveys of 452 non-profit organizations suggests that cross-sector collaboration is not systematically related to increased capacity. However, the results suggest that more enduring relationships between government and non-profit organizations that extend beyond funder-recipient relationships are related to greater strategic planning capacity. Implications for CSSP research are drawn from the results, especially those concerned with the outcomes of CSSPs.”

Cross-Sector Social Interactions and Systemic Change in Disaster Response: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Business Ethics, Anne M. Quarshie and Rudolf Leuschner

Abstract: “The United States National Preparedness System has evolved significantly in the recent past. These changes have affected the system structures and goals for disaster response. At the same time, actors such as private businesses have become increasingly involved in disaster efforts. In this paper, we begin to fill the gap in the cross-sector literature regarding interactions that have systemic impacts by investigating how the simultaneous processes of systemic change and intensifying cross-sector interaction worked and interacted in the context of the preparedness system. We examine these inter-linkages through a qualitative study in the setting of Hurricane Sandy. Drawing from systems theory, we develop a grounded model that provides an explanation for the system change and highlights how cross-sector interaction relates to the changes observed in the system.”

Pay for Success in Health Care – Challenges and Opportunities,” Urban Institute, Laure Skopec

“Health care-related PFS projects should expect a long and complex planning process and involve government partners and evaluators early to maximize chances of success and replicability. This brief explores each of these challenges and provides recommendations on the path forward for organizations interested in pursuing health care–related PFS projects.”

Expanding Our Understanding of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact Initiatives,” Community Development, Wendy DuBow, Sarah Hug, Brian Serafini, and Elizabeth Litzler

Abstract: “This article explores the question of what mechanisms a backbone organization uses in a collective impact initiative to help diverse participants make organizational and social change. Qualitative data gathered from interviews with and observations of the participant organizations illustrate the ways that the backbone organization facilitated movement toward a common goal, making change. In this initiative, the participants were responsible for making their own organizational changes, which in turn, help to change the larger inequitable ecosystem. Data revealed five key mechanisms the backbone organization used to facilitate change-making among participating organizations: regular convenings, accountability, national visibility, top-level leader involvement, and coaching. These mechanisms helped participant organizations integrate new knowledge and implement multi-pronged, customized strategies to navigate systemic change together. Finally, four suggestions for intentional backbone facilitation are proposed to help strengthen collective impact initiatives.”

Other recently released research on cross-sector collaboration: