Cross-Sector Collaboration May Be ‘Invaluable’ in the Current Crisis

 Carolyn Riehl of Teachers College on role “collective impact” can play during pandemic


It may seem like a truism that, in a time of crisis, the various players and institutions in a community should set aside their individual agendas and pull together for a common cause. But there’s a lot that goes into a true collaboration—one that involves government, schools, businesses, universities, foundations and nonprofits. Collaborators must build trust, develop and state a shared vision, and establish roles. And that’s just for starters.

Carolyn_Riehl.jpgCarolyn Riehl knows this well. A professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, Riehl, along with a team of colleagues, conducted a Wallace-sponsored study of cross-sector collaborations to improve education. The final report from this landmark study was published just a few months before COVID-19 changed everything, not only in the realm of education but society as a whole. Riehl says that, as the pandemic exacerbates inequities and the need for services, cross-sector collaborations—sometimes known as “collective impact” initiatives—may become more important than ever, even as their work goes underfunded and unnoticed. We asked Riehl about where the cross-sector collaboration movement stands now and what the future may hold.

What do you see as the contribution of this report to the conversation about cross-sector collaboration? Who are the intended readers of the report and what can they expect to take away from it?

There are many potential audiences for the report, and we tried to provide information relevant to all of them. Leaders of, and participants in, cross-sector collaborations may find it valuable to learn about other programs’ governance structures, service networks and communication strategies. Philanthropies and government agencies who provide financial support for collaborations may be encouraged to learn how others have been generous but patient as these complex enterprises take the necessary time to build towards long-term success. Readers who are considering starting a collaborative initiative will, we hope, be inspired by the efforts and accomplishments of the programs we studied, while also getting a reality check about the challenges and potential pitfalls. We hope citizens and stakeholders in the cities we studied will be proud that their stories can help lead the way, but also that they will use our report to inform their efforts to improve.

How do you think the pandemic will affect cross-sector collaboration—both the collaborations you studied and the movement in general?

The needs that cross-sector collaborations were established to address—better access to quality early childhood education and afterschool programs, social-emotional learning opportunities, targeted support for boys and young men of color, wraparound health and social services for students—are likely to become even more acute for more children and youth. And school districts and other service providers may be hard pressed to respond, given reduced budgets and increased demand. So collaborations are likely to become more useful than ever, even if it’s hard for them to garner direct attention and funding. We’re learning in the pandemic to appreciate all sorts of people and enterprises that operate mostly out of public view but are clearly essential to keeping things going, and cross-sector collaborations might prove to be another vital background operation. 

In the report, you and your colleagues say, “While it is still early in the game, we think there are enough indicators of good things happening that the waning of the movement would represent a loss.” What are some of those indicators? And have any of them taken on new significance in the current crisis?

One positive aspect of cross-sector collaboration for education is an increase in the shared, public recognition that children and young adults often face complicated obstacles keeping them from educational and career success. In the current health and economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, inequities appear in even more stark relief, and we fear they will reverberate for a long time. Removing obstacles and erasing disparities will require a concerted effort by many organizations and agencies, not just schools. Collaborations have already set the stage for that. Another good thing is that despite some early promises of quick success, many collaborations are taking the time to understand what their local needs are and to craft appropriate responses. This thoughtfulness and care will be even more important as the full impact of the pandemic comes into view. Finally, just the fact that collaborations have established structures and processes for people to work together and trust one another—that’s going to be a huge help, I think.

What are some of the common challenges communities face in launching and sustaining cross-sector collaborations? Does the pandemic present any new challenges? For example, can the hard work of building trust and working relationships still take place when conversations and meetings are all happening online?

Our report describes in detail the ways communities built collaborations from the ground up. Most depended heavily on relationships and a nascent sense of shared purpose as they got going, and the need for personal connections didn’t disappear over time. In our new reality, it can be hard to get to know new colleagues, to make eye contact and read the subtle signals in a conversation, or to find serendipitous opportunities for sharing and brainstorming in an online Zoom meeting. But I’ve talked with numerous school leaders recently who are astounded that more people are attending school meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and professional development sessions online than they did in person. This is an opportunity collaborations can take advantage of. It may be possible to communicate more widely and build even larger constituencies for their work and to enable more people to participate across time and distance in work groups and governance bodies. But it will be crucial to ensure that the community members who are often isolated and marginalized are not prevented from participating in new forms of online engagement.

What does the future of cross-sector collaboration look like and how has that picture changed in light of the pandemic? Is the movement in a healthy place or is the fate of these efforts more precarious? What factors will be important in the evolution and endurance of the current wave of cross-sector collaborations?

 It’s hard to predict what will happen to cross-sector collaborations for education, whether they will become permanent or end up as yet another promising but short-lived innovation. Several months ago, my colleagues and I might have opined that their future depended most of all on their ability to develop stable, sufficient revenue streams and to demonstrate to their stakeholders at least some success in achieving goals they set for themselves. We saw reasonably strong signs that this was happening in many places.

But the coronavirus pandemic has been a major disruption. On the one hand, it’s possible that because of it, education funding will be so dramatically reduced, and philanthropic dollars so thinly stretched, that there simply won’t be enough resources to sustain collaborations. Participating local governments, social agencies, and school systems themselves may have to scale back their expectations for accomplishing anything more than the very basic services they are charged to provide; there may be little reserve energy for the ambitious goals of collaborative enterprises. 

On the other hand, the pandemic may reveal cross-sector collaborations to be absolutely indispensable. When a community’s needs become comprehensive and intense, the presence of a collaboration that is already accustomed to coordinating efforts and devising innovative solutions could be invaluable. We’ve already seen anecdotal evidence of cross-sector collaborations convening with philanthropies to decide how best to direct funding to meet extraordinary needs, and we’ve heard how at least one collaboration marshalled efforts to help its community adjust when schools were closed and students needed everything from meal deliveries to laptops and iPads for online learning. Cross-sector collaborations were designed to do things that existing systems hadn’t been able to do. If they are able to adapt to the new realities they face, their future may be secure.