Defining partnerships, recognizing gaps, and wrestling with specificity: what we learned from building a Resource Library

blogimage_what-we-learnedEarlier this week, we released a Resource Library — a new section of our website where practitioners, academics, and anyone exploring the field of cross-sector collaboration can search and filter through hundreds of quality resources (from The Intersector Project and other organizations and individuals) to discover findings, thoughtful commentary, examples, and tools to improve their cross-sector collaboration thinking and practice. Our team carefully deliberated about how to select resources for the Library and organize them so the Library could be helpful to a wide range of users. Doing this work brought to light several challenges.

The Many Models for Collaboration
Our Library aspires to be inclusive of resources that relate to any partnership that involves cross-sector interaction — including public-private partnerships, collective impact, collaborative governance, corporate-non-profit partnerships, community partnerships, and research partnerships. Knowing that the models and methods for cross-sector collaboration are proliferating, we wanted to categorize resources in a way that might be helpful to those who approach the field with a specific model in mind. When we began doing the work of categorizing resources, however, we encountered several challenges. First, there is not a universal shared understanding of what each of these partnership models are — Consider, for example, the wide-ranging use of the term public-private partnership in both popular and academic literature.

Second, while the partnerships listed above are somewhat distinct from one another, there is definite overlap. (For example, many collective impact practitioners likely use collaborative governance in their initiatives.) Even the terms partnership and collaboration are fundamentally ambiguous. Each of us working in and studying this field most likely believes that we know how to define these terms. But, because there isn’t a universal terminology, we may end up talking about different concepts without realizing it (or even the same concepts using different terms). Ultimately, our solution for organizing resources for the Library was to most often defer to how a resource described itself. You can see the resulting definitions here.

Gaps in Resource Types
Another challenge resulted from certain resources we did not find, or found only a limited quantity of. We want users to visit to the Library and be able to find all the tools and information they need for their work — but this brought to light that some topics could benefit from more scholarly and practitioner work. For instance, there are very few resources we could find that offer practitioners rigorous guidance in diagnosing good opportunities for collaboration. We think practitioners could benefit from additional resources like this.

Additionally, of all the resources we collected, relatively few were sector-specific. (We consider sector-specific resources to be resources created specifically for the context, culture, and practices of the business, government, or non-profit sector, or a certain subgroup within that sector, like foundations or city managers. Many resources have a slight focus on one of these sectors, or discuss one more than the others, but are likely to benefit those in any sector). The trend of sector-neutral resources increases accessibility and relevance, but may sacrifice usability, since we know that each sector (and sub-groups within each sector) has different norms and constraints.

Choosing Between a Narrow or Broad Filter
While the previous two challenges speak to issues in the field of cross-sector collaboration more broadly, there were some challenges we faced that had more to do with how we wanted users to interact with the Library. We wanted those visiting the Library to be able to search for something fairly specific if they knew what they were looking for— a tool for collective impact in education, for example. But there are so many issue- and partnership-neutral resources that could benefit that user and provide them with important information for their work that they would be cutting themselves off from by choosing those filter options. This is why we urge users to try searches that leave some of the filter categories blank, as there are many useful resources they are likely to come upon by performing a less specific search.

We hope the Library will prove useful to individuals working in many different areas, beginners and experts alike. We recognize that as the field of cross-sector collaboration, and our own thinking on the topic, continues to advance, our Resource Library will need to reflect these changes. That’s why we consider this hub to be a living resource that we will continually refine and update. If you have any thoughts on the topics above or about the Resource Library specifically, we invite you to contact us at