Jun 06, 2011

New Course Equips Students to Lead Cross-Sector Collaborations for Collective Impact

What happens when the private, government or nonprofit sector fails - or worse yet, all three?

In response to persistent social issues, from global poverty to failures in the US education system, a number of new policy interventions are on the rise and gaining traction. These range from privatizing government services (such as libraries), to nonprofits adding a commercial element to their work, to social entrepreneurial enterprises that aim to offer both market and social value. 

In addition, people are increasingly looking to the potential of Cross-Sector Social-oriented Partnerships (CSSPs) - efforts that seek to address large-scale, complex and persistent (or "wicked") social problems by engaging corporations, nonprofits and government agencies in formal long-term agreements to resolve the issues. There has been enormous growth in these cross-sector collaborations in recent years, with abundant variety in size, scope and purpose in both the developed and developing world.

A new NYU Wagner course in Summer 2011, "Public-Private Collaboration for Social Problem Solving: A Comparative Perspective" will focus on cross-sector partnerships in countries around the world. NYU Wagner students taking the four-day, intensive course will learn about the multiple dimensions, stages, challenges, obstacles, and ingredients for success in cross-sector partnerships. 

"When we witness a sector failure, from corporations seeking profit at the expense of the public good or nonprofits not being accountable, the first response is often to try to find solutions within the sector itself. Cross-sector collaborations may often be a last resort," said Sonia Ospina, RCLA's faculty director who will be teaching the course. "However, there is growing recognition that having every sector involved in sharing the benefits and risks of finding solutions is, in some cases, the only way to truly address long-term social issues."

Despite the need for engagement across sectors, distinct assumptions, work styles, and disciplinary backgrounds of actors in each domain make collaborative work difficult, particularly when leaders do not have the skills and competencies to connect in ways that bridge the gap.

The new NYU Wagner course will incorporate scholarly literature, case studies, guest speakers and problem-based learning exercises to encourage students to consider the assumptions of stakeholders from each sector, clarify and challenge their own assumptions, and explore the opportunities and challenges associated with cross-sector collaboration through the lens of evidence-based knowledge.

Students will read cases about collaborations in such diverse countries and regions as South Africa, Brazil, Zambia, Spain, India, the United States, Latin America and Southeast Asia.  These cases will allow students to ground their understanding of various types of collaboration in larger frameworks.

Students will also examine the differences in collaborations, from the extent to which they are voluntary or mandated (e.g. by a funding body), the degree to which they are working on a systems-planning approach versus delivering services, and how many various stakeholders are involved.

An essential element of the course will be helping students identify the competencies that partners need at both the individual and organizational levels for collaborations to work. For the final project, students will study a collaborative enterprise in which one sector is missing, analyze the situation and background, and develop an argument and strategic plan for involving that sector.

"Unlike approaches such as a single business operating with a ‘triple bottom line,' in cross-sector collaborations, each organization maintains its autonomy, brings its strengths to the partnership and attempts to minimize the weaknesses inherent in each sector," Dr. Ospina observed. "This is enormously complex work, and few collaborations succeed. We are interested in equipping students, who will soon be leading organizations, with the tools to effectively structure and manage collaborative enterprises in a global context."

The course builds on RCLA's broader research and programs on cross-sector partnerships and leadership as a collective achievement, both in US communities and across the globe.

Professor Ospina noted, "Understanding how to work across sectors and other kinds of difference is an essential leadership practice in today's global landscape. Leadership for the public good relies on people who can take a networked, boundary-crossing view of social issues and ways we can work together to solve them."

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