Many of the social issues that we aim to address through our programs, philanthropy, advocacy and volunteerism are complex and inter-related. Although no one individual or organization can resolve these issues, many limit themselves by working in silos and prioritizing their differentiation strategies over the advancement of sustainable solutions. It is through cross-sector partnerships that we can get to the root cause of issues and holistically elevate communities so that we all thrive. The following are five proven practices to building effective cross-sector partnerships:

#1 – Prioritize your assets and needs.

Whether you are a business, nonprofit, foundation, school or government agency, get grounded in what value you bring to others and what specific needs that you have to advance your mission. Instead of generic statements about needing more human or financial resources, get specific about how you will deploy new resources and what the results will be. Which is more appealing – “more staff to reach more kids” or “one new staff member to support college and career preparation activities for every 30 new students enrolled in the program?”

Ensure that everyone in your organization from the frontline (including volunteers) to senior leadership (including board and advisory board members) is consistent and transparent in their communications of your assets and needs.

#2 – Map and rank potential partnerships.

When setting out to build cross-sector partnerships, consider the goals of potential partners. How is what you have to offer bringing them value and vice versa? How are you able to achieve a collective vision while still advancing individual organizational goals?  Consider the following:

  • Industry alignment – where are there natural industry connections (i.e. food services and schools, hospitality and residential care programs)?
  • Philanthropic alignment – who is aligned with your mission and target focus areas (i.e. afterschool programs and education-focused foundations)?
  • Employee engagement alignment – how could a partnership utilize the skills and expertise of employees (i.e. regional transportation study leveraging data analysts)?
  • Workforce alignment – how could a partnership enhance talent attraction / retention, skill building, and diversity and inclusion (i.e. mentoring programs enhancing relationship management skills while strengthening talent pipelines)?
  • Customer alignment – who has a similar or complimentary target audience (i.e. ice cream shop and local recreational sports teams)?
  • Brand alignment – who has similar brand values, promises and experiences (i.e. youth entrepreneur program and PR agency who both value creativity and innovation)?
  • Geographic alignment – who shares your neighborhood or place-based focus (i.e. community development corporation and local credit union)?
  • Network alignment – who do you have existing relationships with (i.e. networks of board members, donors and volunteers)?

Be sure to identify your non-negotiables for partnerships, the filter through which you assess new partnerships. For example, you may choose to prioritize partners that enable geographic expansion or that commit both financial and human resources.

#3 – Make connections.

When making connections with potential partners, be mindful of who the influencers and decision makers are in the organization. Take the time to learn their basic business model and language (i.e. grants versus investments, outcomes versus bottom line). Being able to frame your work in the context of their business practices and goals often grabs their attention and strengthens your connection.

Secure an internal introduction where possible, and focus on building multiple relationships – cultivating several champions on both sides of the partnership to support longer term, deeper relations. Lead with how you add value, and remember that cross-sector partnerships should be rooted in a desire to build relationships, not to advance transactions.

#4 – Sell the vision.

Avoid previewing a million ways that you could work together or getting too deep in the weeds. Zoom out and capture the heart and mind of potential cross-sector partners by selling the vision – what will be different because of your work together?

Opportunity Agenda has a great framework for quickly moving from the vision to a call to action.

  1. Vision — Start first by declaring your shared values (i.e. “We all can agree that no kid should be hungry in our community.”).
  2. Problem — Then introduce the problem in digestible sound bites (i.e. “The fact is that 1 in 6 kids are hungry right now. They arrived to school this morning hungry, making it hard for them to pay attention, to learn and to avoid getting in trouble.”).
  3. Solutions — Move to solutions next, outlining options for how we can collectively address the problem (i.e. “We can ensure that we don’t waste food in our community through food recovery programs, and we can support training programs that connect to existing vacant and forecasted jobs.”).
  4. Action — End with a clear call to action that feels tangible and presents a variety of low to high effort engagement options (i.e. “We can raise awareness of the local hunger issue via a social media campaign, organize a food drive together, or mobilize volunteers to gather and distribute unsold, perishable items from local stores and restaurants.”)

#5 – Design a continuum of engagement

Cross-sector partnerships are often not sustainable or effective if they go from 5mph to 100mph in 30 seconds. It takes time to build relationships, trust, work processes, and the strategy that serves as your partnership roadmap and scorecard. Avoid being rooted in transactions and instead, create a continuum of engagement that strengthens relationships and delivers transformative results over time.

Consider all your possible “on-ramp” activities to your cross-sector partnership – these are typically lower effort activities that don’t overwhelm partners but ease you into your work together. Then consider what the natural “stepping stone” activities would be as your partnership evolves all the way to your ideal state of engagement.

Here is an example of the continuum of engagement in action for a cross-sector partnership focused on workforce development with opportunity youth:

  1. Corporate HR volunteers review resumes for youth workforce development program virtually.
  2. Corporate managers host youth at workplace for mock interviews.
  3. Youth are matched with employee mentors in line with their career interests for job shadowing.
  4. Youth work on a project-based learning assignment tied to a real business problem and are coached by business leaders.
  5. Youth are hired for summer internship opportunities at the company.


Every one of us, individually and organizationally, has something to teach and something to learn from each other – take on that mindset and your cross-sector partnerships will be strengthened by mutual respect and be sustained because of your commitment to continual learning and relationship management.

Be sure to check out the complimentary webinar on this topic available for free on demand here: