Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations

Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations are important – we can achieve things together that we could never achieve alone.(c) Can Stock Photo / AnatolyM

All too many of our current societal challenges —such as the environment, health care, and poverty—are complex, whether on a local, national, or international scale. Yet all too often we approach these issues with linear and even siloed solutions that aren’t sufficient to address the problems at the scale at which they exist. Successful outcomes from addressing these ‘wicked problems’ increasingly depend on the coordinated actions of decision-makers at different levels –  from individuals and communities to enterprise and sector organisations,  to region and nation (policy agents).  This is where cross-sector partnerships and collaborations come into play. By sharing information, resources, activities, and capabilities we can achieve things together that we could never achieve alone. However, despite the billions of dollars invested in cross sector partnerships globally in recent years, there is general agreement from reviewers that the full potential of cross-sector partnerships is far from unlocked. The posts, reports and papers below provide recent thinking and research around approaches to improve the way that cross-sector collaboration is encouraged and managed.

Cross-sector partnerships

The need for cross-sector collaboration. This SSIR article by Jeanine Becker and David Smith addresses one of today’s most pressing challenges; developing the capacity to lead collaboratively and to effectively work across sectors.

Building engagement and social licence: Unpacking Social Licence to Operate and partnerships – developing rubrics for guidance and assessment. This 2019 report by Will Allen and colleagues describes and develops rubrics as a tool for planning and assessing initiatives in SLO and engagement associated with systems change. The report focusses specifically on cross-sector partnerships as a particular form of engagement involving two-way communication and shared responsibility. An indicative rubric is provided as a start to help agencies and other practice change proponents to develop clarity around the different components that underpin partnerships, and as a tool to guide and evaluate progress in this areas.

Capturing Collaborative Challenges: Designing Complexity‑Sensitive Theories of Change for Cross‑Sector Partnerships. This 2018 paper by Rob van Tulder and Nienke Keen 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 defne 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.

Cross‐Sector Partnerships: An Examination of Success Factors. This 2018 paper by  Laura Hartman and Kanwalroop looks at cross-sector social partnerships. They found that successful CSSPs involved partner alignment along clear and well‐informed collaborative goals, among other factors. They defined success of the partnership as having achieved these goals and characterized greater alignment where the partners’ language demonstrated a strong similarity.

Maximising the Impact of Partnerships for the SDGs. This 2018 guidebook by Darien Stibbe and colleagues guidebook aims to support organisations and partnerships to maximise the value
created by collaboration towards the Sustainable Development Goals. It suggests practical actions based around a typical ‘partnering cycle’, including a set of tools designed to support both the partnership, and the individual partners, to identify, define, and assess the types of value that the partnership will create overall, as well as the individual value each partner will gain from the collaboration.

Enhancing the Impact of Cross-Sector Partnerships. This 2016 paper by Rob van Tulder and colleagues links literature on both cross-sector partnerships and impact assessment. Building on these two areas the authors develop a framework to guide future research in partnership effectiveness and efficiency . Through this work they distinguish four basic impact pathways or loops of partnerships that create four different “orders” of impact.

Cross-Sector Collaborations And Partnerships: Essential Ingredients To Help Shape Health And WellBeing. This 2016 paper by Vivian Towe and colleagues looks at three constituent parts or drivers: the number, breadth, and quality of successful cross-sector partnerships; the adequacy of investment in these partnerships; and the adoption of policies needed to support them. The paper proposes the adoption of models better suited to supporting effective cross-sector collaborations.

Questions to understand a cross-sector collaboration. Cross-sector collaboration can be complex and sometimes opaque, bringing together multiple stakeholders with differing institutional logics, motivations, and practices, who are often navigating ambiguous decision-making processes with varying formality. The questions in this webpage (from The Intersector Project) are intended to help those interested or involved in a particular cross-sector collaboration better understand the complexities and nuances of the program or initiative.

Some older papers

Perspectives on partnership: A literature review. This 2009 report by Doug Horton, Gordon Prain and Graham Thiele brings together a wide-ranging review of the literature on partnerships and other closely related forms of collaboration. It identifies and analyzes key cross-cutting themes and success factors, highlights gaps in current knowledge, and identifies high-potential areas for further study. A wide range of research-based publications is reviewed, including studies in such fields as management and organizational development, public administration, economics and international development. It is noteworthy that empirical studies of partnerships are rare, particularly in-depth case studies. Theoretical pieces seldom present empirical tests of hypotheses, and practical guidelines are seldom grounded in theory. Gaps in knowledge are identified at the level of individual partnerships, the level of the organizations that participate in or manage portfolios of partnerships, and the level of research or innovation domains that are characterized by networks of partnerships.

Perspectives on Partnership This 2010 presentation by Gordon Prain, Douglas Horton and Graham Thiele highlights “What the literature says about success and failure in collaborative research for development”.

Cross-Sector Partnerships to Address Social Issues: Challenges to Theory and Practice. This 2005 paper by John Selsky and Barbara Parker brings together literature on CSSPs to
improve the potential for cross-disciplinary fertilization and especially to highlight developments
in various disciplines for organizational researchers. A number of possible directions for future
research on the theory, process, practice, method, and critique of CSSPs are highlighted.


The related page – Building networks for learning – provides a set of links to resources around how to build and map networks. A  second set looks at institutional approaches for working across groups and organisations, including partnerships and boundary organisations.

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