Christopher: Making Real Sustainability Progress Through Cross Sector Partnerships!

All sectors including public, private, service, and academic organizations, are trying to address systemic sustainability issues and concerns within their own area and span of control. Many leaders of these organizations are asking why more collective progress that addresses these issues has not been achieved to date? The reasons are numerous and many times the feedback focuses on silo thinking and not interacting with others that can provide critical input and feedback. We are now at a tipping point with the realization that business, government, NGOs, and academia all need to work together to address and solve our most challenging problems and concerns. The solutions are there with the use of sustainable development best practices, but if we do not work together significant collective progress and impact will not be made.

So then how can we develop these cross sector partnerships to advance sustainable development? Is there a roadmap that can be followed?

Start a meaningful conversation! This first step sounds trivial but is significant in expanding thought and perspectives. Many times we only start conversations with those we know or who have a similar mindset. However, diverse feedback on critical issues requires many inputs from various cross sector sources. For a business, have you tried reaching out to existing and potential new customers and suppliers, professional and trade organizations, colleges and universities, about sustainable product and supply chain product opportunities? For NGOs, obtaining feedback from those who actually receive the services provided is critical for the development of high impact programs and value creation. The concept of design thinking is a great process to use to begin these important conversations.

Establish an in depth discussion! Following on is a second distinct step concerning in depth discussions.  Again, this step may seem simplistic but it requires the complete understanding of the needs and wants of others. One of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to “seek first to understand then to be understood.” For example, colleges and universities need to reach out to local employers to determine the required skillsets for entry level employee positions, so that the appropriate curriculum and learning outcomes can be developed for students. Communities should reach out to their local residents and neighborhoods through surveys and town hall meetings to learn about prioritized needs and wants, build trust, and gain support for citizen programs and initiatives. Deep listening is a tool that can be used to determine and understand needs and wants, as well as begin the process of co-creating breakthrough products and services with the required delivery systems.

Begin to collaborate! The next step in the process focuses on establishing an area of collaboration. Many times these areas naturally surface, as they relate to the vision and mission statements of mutual interest, or key goals and objectives that are beneficial to both parties. Once the area of focus has been established, a pilot or demonstration project could be developed. The partners can play either an active or silent role, but mutually share in the needed resources required and ensuring the success of the overall project. An example would be healthcare providers that want to develop exemplary community based healthcare systems and need the support and feedback of both local residents and businesses to make it happen. A successful pilot or demonstration project paves the way for establishing broader programs and activities.

Develop a working relationship! Needless to say, developing a true working relationship may take years in the making! Why? Building a working relationship takes time and effort on behalf of both parties. The first requirement is trust! Everyone wants improved working cross sector relationships, but many times the trust factor is just not there. Another critical success factor is sharing and openness. Are you able to truly acknowledge your expectations and outcomes about this working relationship? How will progress be mutually measured? How will the working relationship be organized? Besides what’s in it for you, do you also appreciate the importance of what’s in it for the other party as well? In Grand Rapids, the Business Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association ( is currently developing a new e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard for its trade association and members. This new grassroots standard is driven by the input from the organization’s membership who have raised the bar themselves to establish this industry-wide collaborative effort. Public, private, service, and academic sector organizations have all participated in the process. Benchmarking sustainable development best practices and using an effective project management process are good guidelines for consideration.

Establish a partnership! Most organizations want to jump to a “partnership” straight away by leapfrogging over the other steps. However, it is estimated that between 40% and 70% of all joint ventures fail (1). Why? The reasons are also similar for the breakup of supposed partnerships as well. All of the concerns deal with misaligned values, organizational control, and ineffective performance measurements that lead to the breakdown of trust and mutual compatibility. Over the last 10 years, the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University have worked diligently to build a long-term effective partnership regarding the use of student internship and associate positions. Yes, there is an agreement in place that has stipulations and requirements on behalf of both parties. But what makes the partnership really work? It is the spirit and intent of the relationship. Each partner has the best interest of each organization as its primary goal. If something needs to be fixed or changed, both parties work together to effect that change. Each organization also has an alliance manager in place to help build the relationship and grow the partnership.

What’s beyond? As the need for cross sector partnerships continues to gain momentum, is there yet a higher ground to achieve? David Brooks, in a recent NYT article about covenants, articulates how both globalization and a sense of autonomy have helped dismantle our social fiber and national coherence (2). There is a dichotomy in place with a desire to try new things and be creative individually on one hand, with a need to feel connected to a sense of place on the other. When covenants are made, people essentially pledge to become part of one another. Relationships are cherished and identities are restored. Maybe there is an opportunity for each of us to affirm a covenant with our own local community to help provide servanthood leadership and recreate our social fiber?

All the best on your sustainability journey!

Norman Christopher

Director, Office of Sustainability Practices

Grand Valley State University