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The New Order of the Day by Frances Hesselbein


For the first time in recent history, government is saying it cannot, alone, provide the social services our people need. Business is saying it cannot deliver the services government is relinquishing, and the nonprofit/social sector is telling us it cannot single-handedly meet the societal needs being ceded to it by government and business.

The meaning of this monumental change is clear: partnership, alliance, collaboration — call it what you will — is suddenly the order of the day. Alone, no one sector — government, business, or social — can meet the needs of family, children, and community. But together, in new kinds of equal partnerships, each addressing a specific need, we can begin to rebuild cohesive communities.

Last fall, in San Francisco, the Drucker Foundation forged an alliance of its own, in the first of two conferences to explore the creation of social partnerships. With conference partner Hewlett Packard, along with thought leaders from more than a dozen widely diverse organizations, including Andersen Consulting, General Electric, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Mutual of America, Wired Magazine, and the National Urban League, we shared ideas with 350 leaders of business, government, and nonprofit organizations.

A month later, the Drucker Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund brought 28 thought leaders from the three sectors to a two-day dialogue flowing from the learnings of the San Francisco conference. It was an energetic forum, with a noted theologian, the president of an international retailer, a cabinet-level official, the former CEO of a great energy company, a member of Congress, and a city mayor among authors, professors, and chief executives of major voluntary organizations. A great sense of urgency underlay the dialogue in both conferences, along with a commitment to find new and effective avenues of cooperation and change.

Conference participants agreed that to navigate these uncharted waters, we must first recognize some significant obstacles to cross-sector partnership:

  • The differences in language and culture among the three sectors can make simple communication, let alone genuine collaboration, difficult.
  • Business is too often viewed as simply an arm’s-length funder of worthy causes or a recalcitrant party to social change rather than an active investor seeking mutually beneficial returns. Nonprofits, meanwhile, can be viewed as less professional or less well managed, or as a junior member of the partnership.
  • Relationships between the public and voluntary sectors today are seldom equal partnerships. Too often government views the nonprofit agencies that deliver many of its social programs as mere distributors, with little latitude to act, innovate, and exploit its real strength.
  • The diverse but fragmented nature of the nonprofit sector can make it difficult to replicate local successes.

But these obstacles must not deter us. Clearly, if we are to succeed in forging partnerships that will make a difference in society, we will be stronger for the involvement of all the players who help build strong families, healthy children, good schools, decent neighborhoods, work that dignifies, and cohesive communities. The corporations, the small businesses, the government agencies from township to Capitol Hill, and the one million nonprofit/social sector organizations in the United States have a never-before-realized, perhaps never-again opportunity to act as equal partners to rebuild, renew, and restore America. Hope lies in learning to make these creative and diverse alliances the rule rather than the exception.

Our first small contribution may be eight points of understanding that emerged from the conference participants:

  • Retain what works. In the scramble to reinvent the delivery of social services, it is important to remember that the uniquely American relationship between public and nonprofit agencies is fundamentally sound. The commitment, skill, and efficiency of the voluntary sector complements the financial resources and policy-making ability of the public sector.
    The most successful partnerships involve groups of CEOs. There is no substitute for the shared expertise and authority of peer leaders.
  • Start at the top. The most successful partnerships involve groups of CEOs giving leadership and working together. There is no substitute for the shared expertise and authority of peer leaders, especially when they can commit resources and expedite a project.
  • Focus on a manageable target. Projects with specific, measurable objectives fare better than those with broad, overly ambitious objectives. Better to say, “We will raise fourth graders’ reading skills to grade level by 1998” than to say, “We seek the total restructuring of the school system.”
  • “Adhocracy” works. Involve multiple constituents in various aspects of the project as needed, but do not necessarily have everybody participate from beginning to end. Teams work best with broad consensus on overall goals, well-defined roles, clear delegation, and flexible implementation.
  • Small beats large. The smaller the professional staff and the greater the involvement of volunteers, the more successful the project. Membership coalitions tend to be more productive than staff-heavy partnerships.
  • Let a thousand flowers bloom. Different issues require different types of partnerships. Some are appropriately corporate-initiated, others are social sector-initiated, still others are government-initiated. Openness to the leadership needs of the project is key. Equal partnership is the goal.
  • Define success before you start. To work effectively, partnerships must translate their broader goals into measurable, interim targets and time frames. All partners must be committed to the shared mission and objectives before taking the first step.
  • Put your partner first. Always keep in mind the values and objectives — and the needs and constraints — of the other partners. Ask not, “How do we accomplish my agenda?” Ask rather, “How can we help our partners accomplish our shared agenda?”

Building effective cross-sector partnerships is perhaps our most perplexing economic and social puzzle. While there is no definitive blueprint for how to achieve effective alliances, the message is clear: we are in this together, and no one can go it alone. All over the country we see corporations taking the lead in seeking social sector partners to address a specific community need. And social sector organizations, seeing themselves life size, are seeking corporate and public sector partners to achieve joint goals.

Hundreds of successful, innovative partnerships have already shown us the power of cross-sector collaboration.

The need is urgent, but the outlook hopeful: hundreds of successful, innovative partnerships have already shown us the power of cross-sector collaboration. The principles offered here are drawn from such models. The contribution leaders can make is to seek out, inform others, and build upon these successes. We invite our readers to share with us at the Drucker Foundation their own examples of successful partnerships. Together we can truly make a difference.

Sean Jacobson

I'm Sean, a former HR and business consultant providing you insights into the business world for Leader to Leader.

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