A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Collaboration Across Differences: A High-Return Investment

In a time when divisive politics often sends people to their partisan corners, funders have the opportunity to play a unique role as bridge-builders. By investing in efforts that bring together individuals and organizations from different sectors and viewpoints, you can contribute to reducing polarization while also laying the groundwork for more lasting societal change. Since no one person, party, or side has a monopoly on wisdom, it often takes the collective knowledge, resources, and expertise of people with diverse perspectives to create enduring solutions to the complex problems of our time.

Although collaboration across differences may seem impossible or rare, our experience at Convergence shows otherwise. For example, our Working Up initiative brought together individual stakeholders from Walmart, National Employment Law Project, Chamber of Commerce, The Aspen Institute, IBM, and Center for American Progress, along with twenty other diverse leaders, to identify ways to increase economic mobility for Americans through work—a promise that seems out of reach for millions.

Although the participants approached the issue from different and sometimes conflicting vantage points, all had a stake in addressing stagnant economic mobility and the opportunity gaps facing our country. Through challenging face-to-face conversations over the course of 18 months, the group discussed how to improve the quality of work for low-income Americans in ways that would benefit both workers and employers.

During these dialogues, our stakeholders realized they rarely have an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful conversation with those they consider adversaries. Taking the time to really listen helped them understand that often their goals and priorities were not as different as they originally thought, though they face different incentives. When the dialogue meetings and additional working group discussions were completed in late spring 2018, the group had reached agreements on innovative proposals to provide paid national sick leave, expand childcare access, and rebuild career pathways for people experiencing long-term unemployment or returning from incarceration, among many others. The final work product includes a suite of ideas addressing employer needs for a skilled workforce alongside investments in workers that increase mobility.

This project was possible because foundations big and small made investments—ranging from $6,000 to $350,000—in a process that enabled leaders to collaboratively generate solutions to one of the toughest issues our nation faces.

Here are five key reasons why it is a good investment to support collaborative, multi-stakeholder initiatives:

  1. Innovation—The solutions generated by people from across sectors and perspectives are original and inventive. These are ideas that no one group would likely develop working in isolation.
  2. Endurance—The results will have staying power. When solutions are widely agreed upon, they are less open to criticism and less likely to be undone.
  3. Ongoing partnerships—Multi-stakeholder dialogues build lasting relationships among unlikely allies. Individuals who build trust are likely to work together across sectors and ideologies in the future.
  4. Implementation—Ownership of the results by multiple cross-sector institutions makes implementation across systems and networks much more efficient and effective.
  5. TransformationThese dialogues change the way participants work going forward, bringing the collaborative mindset to their work, organization, and personal lives.

Funders have a unique understanding of the broad landscape around the issues they want to impact. From this vantage point, they can catalyze change by supporting collaborative efforts through engaging and connecting their grantees, supporting organizations that want to bring others together, and offering their expertise at the table.

Kate Ross is communications intern and Susan Jerison is director of communications at Convergence, which convenes people and groups with divergent views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues.

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