Cross-sector collaboration is required to bring change within the complex, messy civic systems that make up our communities. But what kind of change do we desire?
There are at least three different kinds of change sought by advocates of cross-sector collaboration.
Some advocate for collaboration because they think it is the best way to lower costs. Cost-driven collaboration can be disguised as promoting shared resources and alignment of efforts. You know your collaboration is really about costs when the initial conversations (and the subsequent ones) focus on organizational revenue and expenses rather than outcomes.
Sometimes collaboration is designed to help a community deal with decline. This is similar to the cost-driven collaboration, but it's not just funding that is in decline. Communities that face declines in population, weakening assets (like universities or critical industries), and even decline in civic pride often promote collaboration. Indeed, communities where stakeholders work well together are better able to manage decline. Unfortunately, they can also get stuck managing decline. Communities can only tolerate so much decline before a threshold is crossed and infrastructure collapses. In a worst case scenario, the community becomes a ghost town.
Communities that are stuck managing decline need to find ways to get off the down escalator and start collaborating for growth.
In the most promising level of cross-sector collaboration, stakeholders are able to set a bold goal that shifts the conversation and the expectations about what is possible. The focus is not on "doing more with less" but on being more. Being a more vibrant, healthy and attractive community. This kind of cross-sector collaboration is focused on outcomes. Outcomes that are tied to those bold goals.
While there can be value in the first two levels of cross-sector collaboration, sustained positive change is only possible if we learn how to excel at the third level.