Cross-sector partnerships get stuck in not one, but THREE common places that stifle their effectiveness and success.

This post was adapted from the work of Alison Gold, a former Living Cities employee and the current Manager of Leadership Education at the Presidio Institute.

We work with over 70 different collective impact initiatives across the country. In our work, Living Cities has found that cross-sector partnerships get stuck in not one, but THREE common places: agreeing to a shared result; mobilizing resources for that shared result; and determining the approach to achieve the shared result. These sticking points are so prevalent and pernicious that we think of them as being caught in a “Bermuda Triangle” of cross-sector partnerships. If you are in a collective impact initiative, or another type of cross-sector collaboration, and you find your partnership is floundering and unable to move forward, you may be stuck in this Bermuda Triangle.

But there is hope—here we list some of the common signs that you have found yourself caught in the Cross-Sector Partnership Bermuda Triangle and how you can escape.

First Corner of the Triangle: The Shared Result

Living Cities uses the term shared result to describe the specific purpose of a cross sector partnership, such as a decrease in regional unemployment rate. In most cases, shared result can be synonymous with goal or outcome. A shared result should be SMART - that is, Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-bound. SMART goals allow the partnership to measure its progress toward achieving the shared result over time.

We have seen that if a partnership has not agreed to a SMART shared result (e.g. 90% of the labor force will be employed by the year 2020), the partnership can find it difficult to communicate to potential partners the specific goals of the initiative and how they could help achieve those goals. A SMART shared result also helps a partnership track progress over time—without it, it can be difficult for a partnership to know if it’s achieving what it set out to do.

One challenge we’ve found is that collective impact initiatives conflate specific with program-focused. Making a shared result SMART does not require focusing on a specific program or service. Collective impact initiatives, by definition, should be focused on population-level results that encompass a whole community or region. A shared result of “increasing job referrals by 15% in five years” fails the test of “Relevant” in SMART, because it is too focused on one program (a job referral program) and should not be the work of a collective impact initiative.

Based on our experience, there are four components to a successful shared result: population-level focus; making it SMART; agreeing and sharing accountability; and grounding it in local context. If you feel that your cross-sector partnership is stuck in this end of the Bermuda Triangle, check out our resource on how to create a shared result for how to get out of it.

Second Corner of the Triangle: Support and Resources

If you have formed your cross-sector partnership, you are already on the path of securing resources for your work. Getting people bought into your work and contributing their time is the first step to fully resourcing the partnership. The next step will be to secure financial commitments, which can come from the partners themselves, or other local or national funders.

The obvious challenge at this end of the Bermuda Triangle is securing financial commitments, which is a challenge for any social sector initiative. For some help on this, check out the white paper “Funding for the Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact Efforts,” published by the StriveTogether network.

If you’ve already secured funding, you may be facing another challenge in this corner of the Bermuda Triangle: funding is running out or your partners have become fatigued in their involvement with your partnership and are looking for ways to exit. This can happen several years into the work, and is another way cross-sector partnerships flounder.

But, this challenge can also be an opportunity. For a cross-sector partnership’s work to sustain after the partnership itself stops its activities, members need to consider how their work or portions of their work can be embedded in another institution. Often this institution is a government agency, but it can be a regional planning body, a business or business partnership, a large nonprofit, or another type of local organization. How to work on embedding portions of your work relates directly to the final part of the Bermuda Triangle.

Third Corner of the Triangle: Approach to Achieving Shared Result

The final corner of the Bermuda Triangle can be the most harrowing. In our experience with cross-sector partnerships, we’ve found that partnerships can approach their work in three different ways: They can focus on delivering projects and/or programs that provide services to individuals, such as housing support, after-school tutoring, or anything that directly benefits individual people. Or they can work with senior leadership in organizations to change their behavior as it relates to the cross-sector partnership’s purpose, including policy changes. Or, they can do both these things.

If a partnership fits into the first category of primarily focusing on project and programs, it is at risk of paying too much attention to short-term solutions and not considering the root causes of the problems it’s attempting to solve. If a partnership fits into the second category, it can be too focused on long-term, seemingly intangible solutions to large problems that people struggle to fully understand.

If your cross-sector partnership falls into either of these categories, you may be stuck in the third corner of the Bermuda Triangle. A program/project cross-sector partnership could be doing a lot of work day-to-day delivering services, but not be doing anything to ensure that its work will endure even if the partnership closed its doors. A partnership focused on longer-term changes could be working hard to have people buy-in to its agenda, without any tangible results to secure the support of potential partners. To get out of this trap, you need to be sure that your cross-sector partnership has both components embedded into its approach.

Living Cities often talks about this kind of change that endures after your day-to-day work is complete as creating “systems change.” For more on this, read “What Makes Collective Impact a Powerful tool for Systems Change.”

The Bermuda Triangle of Cross-Sector Partnerships can be scary, but escape is possible. We hope the resources presented here can help if you are stuck, and if you need more help, check out our Cross-Sector Partnership Assessment for more guidance on how to improve your partnership.

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Join the conversation about cross-sector partnerships at or on Twitter with @Living_Cities and the hashtag #xsector.