It’s Time to Build Bigger Tents

By Paula Berezin, CEO & Chief Strategist


Cross-sector collaboration is not a new concept. For years, industry leaders have proven that collective impact is the best approach to solving a wicked problem. With no single solution to these complex issues, and the intersection of challenges accelerating, the need for a wide variety of expertise and influence at the table is increasing.

Coalitions of like minded stakeholders, who may have previously seen each other as competitors, are joining forces to create systems change and legislative impact. Food Corps is an excellent example of how this age-old concept can continue to maximize impact. Through the reWorking Lunch initiative, FoodCorps helped to raise awareness and funds to make healthier options the norm for the 30 million kids who rely on school meals. This collective impact strategy brought a cross sector collaborate together to change behavior and take action around a shared platform. 

But what about collaboration among groups that don’t see eye-to-eye? It’s no secret that our culture today feels increasingly divisive. Instead of reaching across the aisle, it seems as if the aisle is only widening.  

Try as we may, it’s almost impossible to come to a consensus on certain polarizing issues. While we can’t change where people stand, we do have the power to create a culture of empathy that can outmatch such an impasse. We can find common goals, if not common ground.  

Sisterhoods like Moms Demand Action are doing this extremely well. Through their work, thousands of moms have taken on our country’s gun laws. They’ve not gone toe-to-toe with every member of the NRA, but rather have joined forces with gun supporters around common sense gun laws. Together, they’re fighting for stricter licensing restrictions and limited firearm access for those with a violent past. Moms Demand Action has discovered how to approach the issue they believe in a way that garners widespread support.  

So how can other social impact leaders replicate this success?


Address and clarify needs

First, determine the issue you’re fighting for, the needs of the population impacted and why those needs must be addressed. It may sound basic, but this serves as a level set. The effect on the community must be bigger than your organization alone, or you wouldn’t have considered taking on such a demanding partnership. This reminder is a key to continued alignment moving forward.


Agree on collective opportunities and identify your role

With a clearly established why, it’s time to identify what opportunities exist through the alignment of outcomes. Consider what is your core strength? What perspective, expertise or solution do you bring to the table that is uniquely better and stronger? Where do your efforts or skill sets overlap with other  partners? Find complementary ways to work together in order to best leverage resources and advance the shared outcomes.


Identify the shared commitments

With an established why and who does what, it’s time to determine the how. How will you and your collaborators work together? What does your organization need to shift to be able to collaborate with this seemingly unlikely partner? Develop a partnership framework that is designed around a shared vision and outcomes. This will help bring you back to the root of the partnership as potential opportunities for divergence arise.

This approach calls for many organizations to flex a new muscle that may have been dormant or non-existent. This kind of collaboration can be challenging even for collective impact partnerships with shared beliefs or values. While it can be even more difficult for those who do not share common ground, it is possible to address the community’s most pressing needs in a way that doesn't violate your organization’s principles.

Rather than trying to figure out how to come to a consensus, focus on building stronger social affluence working toward shared outcomes. Consider, critically, if you have the right people within the organization to help you achieve this type of collaboration. Extend your network to include new circles with differing viewpoints and approaches. 

It’s time to lead with the issue and organize around the solution. It’s time to work around, within and alongside different viewpoints to achieve lasting social impact. It’s time to build bigger tents.

Paula Berezin