Cuddle parties, and other tips for cross-sector collaborations


26586_113165725368629_112860248732510_204800_6784158_n1Hi everyone. If I seem smarter and more attractive in the past couple of weeks, it’s because I just came back from Harvard Business School. Well, technically, I was sent as part of Seattle’s delegation to the four-day Young American Leadership Program (YALP). But whatever, I feel smarter already; and since it is technically true, I am telling all my relatives that I went to Harvard. I even have a tote bag filled with pens I stole to prove it. I’ll give my cousins these pens when I visit them in Vietnam this July, and maybe they’ll stop sending me job postings.

Anyway, brilliant young leaders from businesses, nonprofits, and government were brought together to discuss cross-sector collaboration, an area that we nonprofits have not really thought much about or done much to advance. And it shows. While I was there—at Harvard—surrounded by up-and-coming colleagues from prestigious corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, Alaska Airlines, and White Castle, I noticed just how glaring the gaps between our sectors were. People in the program from the business sector were saying things like, “Well, all nonprofits are slippery with their outcomes, so how do we keep them accountable” and “why do we need to talk about foundations and nonprofits separately? Aren’t they all the same thing?” I know, right? I had to refrain myself from shouting, “You take that back right now or I will eat your face! I will dip your head in hummus and I will eat your face!!!”

I drank some wine to calm down, and had the sad realization that although we share the same world, the sectors are like ships that pass in the night. With one ship harassing passengers from another ship for donations and to join this ship’s board, and the other ship, more like a yacht, tossing down the occasional crab cake and a few olives. Meanwhile, this third ship is all slow and awkward and makes you wonder why you pay so much in taxes to keep it going. When was the last time you attended a coalition made up of people besides nonprofit unicorns and the occasional program officer? When did we last meet with a business or government person, and the agenda was not to secure a donation or sponsorship or grant or to get them on our boards? 

So, why do we sectors suck so much at collaboration? I can think of a few reasons. First, there’s the fact that we nonprofits are spending half of our time just trying to survive,20100325430086 much less think about strategic alliances. Second, we nonprofits often have challenges just partnering with each other or with funders. Third, we haven’t really been making a convincing case to the business sector as to why it is in their best interest to partner with us. Fourth, it seems like we just all speak different languages—“What are the KPIs?”—and it would just be too hard to learn each other’s ways of doing stuff. Fifth, this is just how things have always been. 

Whatever the reasons are, our communities can’t afford for business, government, and nonprofits to be so siloed from one another. The challenges we as a society are facing increase exponentially, and the resources that we have with which to tackle these problems pretty much remain the same or decreasing. The gap between needs and resources grows by the day. To have a chance of building the community that we envision, all the sectors must be BFFs.

Luckily, through the program, we learned of some great examples of collaborations that are working. In Ohio, for instance, the Columbus Partnership was able to do some awesome stuff. Although its 50-plus members comprise mostly business CEOs, with a few nonprofits tossed in, it still achieved some great things, including bringing in new businesses and jobs, keeping the National Hockey League from leaving, and redeveloping downtown. It did, however, fail to get voters to support a huge education levy, and I wonder if some of that failure may be due to the fact that it did not have enough nonprofits and government leaders in its fold.

aquaponics-768x1024Milwaukee, meanwhile, formed the Water Council, a group of business, nonprofit, and civic leaders getting together with the goal of making the City the water hub of the world. Companies making money through water (finding it, selling it, processing it, etc), local universities studying water, environmental nonprofits, and even real estate agents all banded together, forming subcommittees for research, branding, education, outreach, all sorts of fun stuff. The group did some cool stuff, including water research, created the School of Freshwater Sciences in order to churn out more professionals, and started developing aquaponics technology, which from my understanding is raising fish and growing plants for food in the same contained water system.

As the world’s population continues to grow, the scarcity of water is going to increase, along with the scarcity of food, so we should all be thankful that Milwaukee is awesome and future-oriented enough to get people of different sectors to work together around this issue. When the zombie apocalypse hits, I’m driving my family to Milwaukee.

Anyway, to be frank, until this leadership program, I didn’t think much at all about cross-sector collaborations. We have our hands full just trying to get funders, who are basically in the same sector as nonprofits, to be equal partners. At various points of irritation, I’ve written open letters to the business sector, like “Dear business community: Please remember these ten things about nonprofits” and “Dear business community: Stop thinking you are better than us nonprofit folks!” 

However, we must now think about how to bring in the other sectors, how to get everyone to work closer together. The Columbus Partnership and Milwaukee’s Water Council took years to build up to their current level. These things take a long time to develop. In the meanwhile, we can start laying some groundwork with a few simple steps that we each can take right away:

Join a group that’s outside your expertise: I just joined an economic development group that’s focused on new market tax initiatives. What do I know about economic development? As much as I know about sports (I think today the Mariners got a touchdown at the 12th inning, because I heard fireworks as I was driving past the stadium). But I was transparent with this group, and told them I wanted to learn, and that in return, I can provide the perspective of someone who works closely with communities of color. It’s been win-win so far, and it’s fascinating. Don’t think you’re wasting your time learning stuff unrelated to your current work. We can’t do cross-sector collaboration if we don’t start learning each other’s languages.

Network and make friends with people from other sectors: We tend to gravitate toward people who share the same common interests. Most of my friends, by now, are nonprofit people. And they are awesome. But all of us need to expand our circles. As I mentioned earlier, in “3 reasons we all need to go to more happy hours,” it is in our weak ties that we get the most information. So while we should keep getting a drink with one another other, let’s now start to include folks from the other sectors. We can’t do cross-sector collaboration if we don’t know and like each other.

Get your organization to start thinking about cross-sector collaborations: Have a discussion with your board. Ironically, it’s probably chock-full of people from the business sector. If you’re doing a strategic plan, think broadly about how your organization can partner with other sectors to address issues critical to your mission. Encourage and provide space for staff to explore cross-sector partnerships. 

Invite leaders from other sectors to your non-fundraising events: It seems the only time we think to invite business or government leaders to our events is when we plan to ask them for money. But we have all sorts of events/forums/discussions, and when do we stop to think, “Hey, I bet the owners of the thirty small businesses in this neighborhood might like to join in the conversation.” Let’s start building those relationships. It will take a while, since they may not be used to it. But it shouldn’t be that the only time leaders from other sectors hear from us is when we need support.

Host a cross-sector karaoke night: Plan a karaoke night, and get leaders from different sectors to join. It worked for the group in Seattle at Harvard. We are already talking about forming a “Seattle Partnership.” And because it’s Seattle, we’ve already decided all our meeting snacks will be organic and gluten-free and made from recycled other snacks.

Organize a Cross-Sector Cuddle Party: This is a strictly platonic party where leaders from the different sectors can get together and snuggle. Once a nonprofit ED and a article-2539763-1AACC96100000578-828_634x424business CEO spend half an hour cuddling, it may just inspire amazing collaborations.

All right fine, maybe not the cuddle party, though I hear it’s catching on in many cities. But the other stuff. Let me know your thoughts and other suggestions you have. For the sake of our communities, we nonprofits must start working closer with people outside our sector. Like aquaponics, where fish and plants depend on each other for existence and to keep the water clean and healthy, we are reliant on one another and must do a better job working together.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Free stuff from NWB! Look, a reader inspired me to make these awesome little business cards! On one side it says, “Card-Carrying Nonprofit Unicorn” and on the other sideunicorn is the Nonprofit Unicorn’s Mantra, which appeared in “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.” Because you’re awesome, I want to send you some cards. Send a self-addressed-stamped-envelope (SASE) to Vu Le, Chief Unicorn, 5623 Rainier Ave S., Seattle, WA 98118 and I’ll send you back three cards to keep in your wallet or purse or give away, or use as dental picks. They’re free because you’re awesome, but I won’t turn down donations to my organization either (make check to “VFA” and put “RVC” in the memo line; or donate online). Please send the SASE by this Wednesday, since I’ll be on vacation for a lot of July and you won’t get your cards until I come back if you send it too late. First-come-first-served until I run out of cards.

I’ll make other cards too, so you can start collecting them. For example, the “Sustainability question” card, which will have the standardized answer, and you can just turn the card in with your next grant application.

  • Pam Smith

    Partnerships across sectors can work with hard work and communication – for a look at Washtenaw County’s Coordinated Funding Model go to
    Thanks for all you do Nonprofit with Balls! You get my Mondays off to a great start!

  • Laura Swanson

    My Mondays definitely suck less because of you. Thank you!

  • Sasha Nollman

    I work on the Sector Initiatives Team at the Seattle WDC and I love that you’re talking about this! There is lots of cross-sector stuff going on in Seattle and it is great to see it getting talked about more.

  • Barbara Stross

    Thanks for a good post, Vu. You may not remember Olympia beer, whose slogan was “It’s the water”. Milwaukee has it right–clean water (and air) are indispensable to life as we want it to be. West coast states could easily make themselves the “alter world hub” of good water.

  • Jessica Stenz

    We in Milwaukee (or at least the Wisconsin nonprofit world) look forward to your visit BEFORE a zombie apocalypse!

  • Anisha Hingorani

    Vu–I’ve been a secret silent stalker of NWB for too long, but this post hit me right in the nose and forced me to come out of the shadows! I work for a collective impact non-profit called the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which seeks to advance systems-level policy solutions through cross-sector collaborations. I’m so glad you’re talking about this topic because our one of our core function is basically to host cross-sector cuddling parties (we call them Network meetings but I’m going to propose a name change) to break down silos and align efforts. So glad you’re talking about this!! But more importantly: free stuff?! This post is winning.

  • Wow, what about ? Community Leadership Development Programs have been around in many communities across the States and Canada, and were started many years ago in response to this very issue. Working to bring together people from the business, social profit and public sectors to build mutual understanding and respect for each other, they consist of a series of active ‘issue days’ – usually one per month for 9 or 10 months, a kick-off retreat and a closing retreat. An important experiential component is the project – cross-sectoral teams work with a local nonprofit to complete a project that benefits the organization. It is in this activity that the ‘rubber hits the road’ for many participants, as theory is challenged in reality.

    ‘Slippery with the outcomes’? Perhaps the complexity of determining appropriate measures of impact and outcome for a team project will be a major learning for all involved. Perhaps working together instead of pointing fingers and scratching heads a team can help find a solution to this common conundrum. And mindsets DO shift.

    Seattle has had one of these programs for decades now. Back in the early ’90s, a group of us from Vancouver BC (the Board of Trade and Volunteer Vancouver folks, mostly) made a trip to Seattle to visit the program there – Leadership Tomorrow – and picked the ED’s brains for hours. Then we returned home and had many many hours of learning and epiphany ourselves (and an ongoing connection to LT as our mentor program) as we adapted the principles and build the curriculum to offer such a program here. First Leadership Vancouver cohort graduated in 1992, and many of those people are still in touch, although our program no longer operates (another story for another time).

    The business leaders who emerged from those days would have emerged within their companies and climbed their sector ladder anyway. But what changed is their ability to reach out to colleagues in the other sectors to get valued advice and help with complex issues, and to think more critically and helpfully about the other sectors when others make simplistic statements about them. This is true from all sectors to the others. It helps that selection was rigorous, on not based on ability to pay.

    It’s not easy to maintain a program like this. There are centrifugal forces of power inequity, resource inequities and funding challenges, within the framework organization (which in our case was itself made up of a mix of public private and community leadership who had never worked as intimately together to develop shared goals and values as this) which create the pressure to simplify and dumb down the challenges. A committment to the core principles of what makes this work to truly shift mindsets and give tools for collaborating among these ‘cultural divides’ means people must take risks at times to challenge powerful voices and funders. But it is oh, so, worth it.

    I think it is terrific that you want to create/maintain a Seattle cluster of participants in the Harvard process. But I encourage you to also connect with the Leadership Tomorrow people because that program still exists, and appears to be keeping the core curriculum design strong (from their website):

    * The curriculum includes a balanced combination of retreats, day-long seminars (Challenge Days) and small group activities.

    * Retreats – Two overnight retreats, held in September and February, focus on developing personal and civic leadership skills. Each retreat lasts two days.

    * Challenge Days – Once a month participants get to spend a day focusing on a significant challenge facing the region such as education, health care, the environment or the regional economy. Each Challenge Day features guest speakers who are experts on the topic being covered, as well as a number of experiential activities.

    * Leadership Learning Labs – The program features two small group activities. One focused on exploring effective leadership with local leaders and the other focused on applying leadership by working on a project sponsored by a local non-profit organization.

    So, let’s not create another needless silo, but think about collaborating on a meta level in order to create an enabling environment for doing so at the program and activity level. The latter have been done over and over, but rarely the former. And so as people’s lives change and they move on (and it is PEOPLE who really make collaboration initiatives happen, so we lose the ability to maintain collaborations when the ‘who’ shifts) or funders decide to shift focus, these collaborations end. Even the history of such collaborations can be lost unless someone digs in files and finds an old report…

    At the least the Leadership Tomorrow people will understand your recent transformational experience and will speak a familiar language. They can probably use the encouragement of knowing that others have discovered their passion for connection across the great divides. They will also have insight about the post-program refractory period as well, and that may well make the difference as to how well you can ‘infect’ your local landscape of business, nonprofit and public sector people to raise everyone’s consciousness about our inaccurate and unhelpful – and downright dismissive – stereotypes of each other.

    Of course, one would need balls to do that, right? It’s possible that cuddle parties could work during the retreat portion of the program, if it helps achieve the outcome (‘fuzzy outcome’ joke here) that is hoped for. You go for it, Vu. We are all behind you (possibly spooning)!