At Living Cities, we believe in the power of cross-sector partnerships to address some of the toughest challenges our country faces today. But, as these initiatives and others have continued to evolve, it’s become clear that practitioners, participants, and funders need a systematic way and shared language to reflect on whether their partnerships are set up “right” to achieve their intended results.

In September, we at Living Cities started sharing our thinking on this work through What Barriers? Insights from Solving Problems through Cross-Sector Partnerships, a strategic framework for cross-sector partnerships, which describes and defines a set of traits that make up a strong foundation, factors that accelerate or limit success, and behaviors that are necessary for high-impact partnerships. The framework was developed from two years of learning from and with leaders about what it takes to set up and run a cross-sector partnership so that it can have real and measurable impact.

One of the cross-sector partnerships we had a chance to learn from extensively is Chicago’s Partnership for New Communities. The Partnership was created by leading civic institutions and businesses to support the success of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation, a sweeping effort to reinvent public housing. The Partnership, which ran from 2001-2012, raised money and invested it in employment-related initiatives, economic development and community building to bring about large-scale improvements to the neighborhoods most affected by public housing transformation.

In our second case in the series Insights from Solving Problems through Cross-Sector Partnerships Case Studies, we look at the Partnership for New Communities through the lens of the cross-sector partnership framework. The case of the Partnership contains many insights about building the “right” cross-sector partnership to support the transformation of public housing, but here are three ideas that stood out:

  1. What gives you the right? The connection between authority, representatives, and positioning. When people and institutions come together to try to address complex social or economic problems, they are often faced with the question: who has granted you the right to do the work? This question of authority is fundamentally connected to the stature and power of individuals involved with the partnership as well as how the partnership itself is positioned in relation to other individuals and organizations working on the same issues.

  2. Developing the strategy for a cross-sector partnership by linking charge and the problem-solving cycle. Cross-sector partnerships often form because there is a group of individuals or organizations that want to implement a particular strategy. If the problem has a known solution, this can work very well, and the partnership will have a ‘doing’ charge. However, if the problem—like so many complex social and economic problems–has no known solution, the approach of starting from a particular strategy is deeply flawed. By skipping over the important steps of problem-defining and interpreting & hypothesizing, it is easy to develop solutions which mischaracterize the source(s) of the problem and what can plausibly address them. Since many factors contribute to complex social and economic challenges, we believe that a cross-sector partnership which has a ‘thinking & doing’ charge is more effective when it forms around achieving an intended result and develops the strategies for achieving that result together.

  3. Don’t overstay your welcome; plan for sunset by tying results to time boundaries. In social change work, organizations and cross-sector partnerships sometimes persist past the point of being useful. One effective way to avoid this is to tie the partnership’s intended result to time boundaries in order to plan for it to sunset.

Our hope is that this work is just the beginning of the conversation, and the learning that needs to happen to advance cross-sector partnerships to address the toughest challenges we face today. If this case study (or the first case in the series on Partners for a Competitive Workforce) and the framing paper have piqued your interest, you’re invited to be part of the work, provide feedback, and share your insights, ideas and experiences. You can do so on Twitter @Living_Cities using hashtag #xsector, or by reaching out to me directly at agold [at] or @AKGold11.