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Learn how to build a multisector collaborative.



Can ordinary community people solve big problems?

Do you ever feel like the world is falling apart? Does it seem as though our problems are so big and overwhelming that we won't be able to solve them? Does it seem like many people who are trying to solve the same problem are working against each other, rather than with each other? Does it seem like the "experts" have failed?

If you feel that way, take heart. Although it's true that the modern day problems our communities face are more complex than they were a generation ago, many ordinary people, just like you, are figuring out new ways to solve them.

Frustrated by going it alone or working at cross-purposes, people in many regions and in different kinds of communities are learning how to sit down with their friends, opponents, and strangers alike to work out the complex problems that are common to us all.

People are realizing that they can't wait for the "experts" to come up with the solutions. Community people are developing their own organizations and expertise. They are often taking the lead with government institutions, businesses, and non -profit organizations to do what will benefit the whole community, not just one powerful interest group.

One of the tools that community people are using to solve these "big" problems is multisector collaboration, which is the focus of this section.

But before we go further, remember--even though the term "multisector collaboration" sounds like a fancy term, it is just a tool that ordinary people use to get things done. You can learn about how to make it work for you!

What is multisector collaboration?

A multisector collaboration is the partnership that results when government, non-profit, private, and public organizations, community groups, and individual community members come together to solve problems that affect the whole community.

In other words multisector collaboration can solve "systemic" problems.

What are "systemic" problems? They involve a community's "systems" rather than one isolated area. They might include a failing educational or health care system, community-wide economic problems, environmental problems, or a number of interrelated problems. When solving a systemic problem, you can't cure one leaf without treating the whole tree.

Multisector collaborations have the capacity to solve systemic problems, because they draw on the resources of all the sectors: business, government, and nonprofit. They can wield more power than one organization or even a group of similar organizations.

Example: Baltimore multisector collaborative

The Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), an African American grass-roots organization, approached the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the town's primary business organization, to establish a partnership. The purpose of the partnership was to solve problems that impacted the entire community, such as high unemployment, a failing educational system, and an unskilled workforce.

BUILD could see some links between the needs of their own constituents and the needs of the business community. The GBC also recognized those links. Together the two groups had enough influence to pressure a reluctant city government to improve its ineffective educational system.

Eventually this partnership expanded to include the mayor's office, several government organizations, and the city public schools. Together their collaborative developed programs and incentives to keep students in school and prepare them to be skilled workers. The collaborative met BUILD's need for improved education for its community members, including better prospects for employment for them; while GBC met its needs for a skilled workforce.

As illustrated above, comprehensive problems require comprehensive solutions. For systemic problems, the Band-Aid approach doesn't work. Complex and intertwined problems like these require cooperation throughout a community in order to make significant changes. No one person, no one organization – not even one sector can make significant movement without the help and cooperation of everyone that is involved in or affected by the issue.

In fact, multisector collaboration often occurs after one organization or one sector has tried to solve problems by itself, and has failed because other interest groups were working against it or were not lending it necessary help needed to do the job.

What else makes multisector collaboration so different?

Multisector collaboration is based on cooperation, rather than competition

In mainstream American culture there is a strong emphasis on competition. In a competitive culture, each individual or group works independently, so it can be the best, the most profitable, or the most effective, and gain individual rewards.

Multisector collaboration is based on cooperation rather than competition. In many situations, everyone achieves more when people come together, pool their resources, and assist one another. This shift, from a competitive to a cooperative attitude, is profound. The results can be highly beneficial.

However, making this shift is not usually easy. It takes some time because people are so used to living in a competitive culture. They are afraid that when they pool resources and take risks together, they will lose the rewards that they worked so hard to gain. They often worry that others will take advantage of them, use them, or leave them behind.

Therefore, when people collaborate, they need to take the time to learn to work together cooperatively. They have to establish trust and build safeguards into the collaborative process so that they are more likely to look out for one another's interests. We'll talk more about how to do that later.

Multisector collaboration makes democracy work better because it puts the decision-making process back in the hands of ordinary people

Many leaders in all sectors have come to realize that problems won't solved unless the people who are most affected are central to solving them. They are the ones who will make solutions work or let them fail.

People are more willing to participate if they feel included in the planning and decision-making process. In order for multisector collaboration to be successful, ordinary people from diverse sectors of the community must be actively engaged in voicing their opinions, providing leadership, and lending their expertise to solving problems.

In fact, multisector collaboration has its greatest potential for making democracy work better when communities become empowered through the collaborative process. That's when communities learn to lead institutions in reaching the goals that the communities themselves determine, rather than the other way around. (More on empowerment later.)

Traditional leaders also have much to gain from a community that operates more democratically. Multisector collaboration takes traditional leaders off their lonely pedestals and helps them feel that they, too, are part of the community. It promotes the sense that we are all in this together.

Multisector collaboration is messy

With so many people with different interests involved, multisector collaboration is a process that doesn't always go according to a neat plan. Getting many people from different sectors to agree is a challenging, messy, operation. Working in a multisector collaborative is like learning to surf in an ocean - you have to change plans often to fit the always changing situations and crises that you continually meet. But remember, surfing the waves is fun!

Multisector collaboration is a long-term enterprise in which the investment of time and resources is great, but so are the rewards

Multisector collaboration is a long-haul effort. If you can accomplish your goals with another method you may want to consider it, because multisector collaboration can require an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources. However, if multisector collaboration is the right route to go, the potential rewards can be great.

So, where do you begin in planning a multisector collaborative?

Is your community ready for multisector collaboration?

Before initiating a multisector collaborative, it is important to determine if multisector collaboration is right for your community at this time. You want your effort to succeed, so before you begin, take the time to assess whether conditions are favorable. Here are some of the items you should consider:

Is there a clear need for multisector collaboration?

The more obvious the need, the more likely it is that people will be ready and willing to work together and get the job done. For example, when it is clear to almost everyone in the city that the middle class is fleeing to the suburbs, or that the bridges and parks desperately need some repair, or that the schools are failing, people will feel moved by the urgency of the situation. If people throughout the community recognize that a clear need exists, this may be the time to act.

If there is not a clear need, you can work collaboratively with a smaller number of organizations to solve problems. You can lay the groundwork for a multisector collaborative, if and when the need becomes more urgent and obvious.

What is the level of trust among the different groups and sectors?

Do people from different interest groups have friendly relationships, or is there a long history of mistrust? Is there fierce competition and fear between different groups? Do people from different groups or sectors see one another as stereotypes? For example, the Chamber of Commerce may view a grassroots organization as a group of angry radicals, while the grassroots organization may view Chamber members as inhuman, cynical, and cold-hearted.

For many groups, the first part of the work of a multisector collaborative is to build relationships and trust, so that people can begin to work together on solving community problems. In fact, lack of trust can sometimes be the biggest part of the problem. Once that’s overcome, many things can fall into place.

But note: It can take a while for groups that have been excluded from traditional power structures to trust that they will be taken seriously, that they won't be used as tokens, and that their non-mainstream values and views will be respected.

There are many ways to build trust. We'll talk more about them later in this section.

Do people agree on what the problem is, or will the problem need to be defined?

If there is general agreement among sectors and interest groups about what the problem is, then the multisector collaborative can look for solutions relatively early in the process. Often, however, people don't agree on just what the problem is. For example, let's say that drugs and crime among youth are increasing in your community - What is the problem? Is the real problem the decrease in jobs in the area? Or is it the lack of authority in families and schools, an inadequate educational system, or a combination of factors?

In multisector collaboration, people may need time to come to agreement on what the problem is. Without clear definition of the problem, it's hard to form a solution for it! Underlying different views of the problem are differences in values, cultural perspectives, and other significant factors. Discussions in which these are explored will help people build a common understanding of the nature of the problem.

Now you have some criteria to help you decide if a multisector collaborative is a good fit for your community. Is there a clear need, is there enough trust, and is there enough agreement on the nature of the problem? If you answer yes, it’s time to begin.

If multisector collaboration is not the right solution, there are other ways that organizations can work together that may be more appropriate.

What are the first steps you should take in building a multisector collaborative?

Often, when people start a multisector collaborative they want to roll up their sleeves and start right in with solutions. That single-mindedness is essential at times, but in the beginning of multisector collaboration the groundwork has to be laid to make the problem-solving possible. Here are some suggestions for how to get started:

Train leaders in all sectors that have the vision, commitment, and respect necessary to lead a collaborative

Multisector collaboration requires strong leadership. Leaders are needed to provide a vision, instill confidence, wield influence where necessary, handle crises, and move the process forward. Without strong leaders, a multisector collaborative isn’t likely to survive the many difficulties it can confront.

It is also important that there are leaders from all the different sectors, especially leaders who represent community members, not just large or powerful institutions. In fact, multisector collaboration has a high potential for significant change partly because it provides opportunities for community members without formal titles to develop leadership skills.

If you believe that there are not enough strong leaders to launch a multisector collaborative in your town, you can do something about it. In Hartford, Connecticut, organizers had such a problem, so they developed a leadership program that trained leaders from all sectors of the community. Over a period of time, the leaders learned skills and built trust with one another. Later they were able to work together to build a successful multisector collaborative in Hartford.

Identify a facilitator to bring the different groups together

A multisector collaborative needs a facilitator to bring and keep the group together. The facilitator should have the authority, reputation, influence, and trust necessary to unite the collaborative. She can be an individual representing any involved organization or coalition, or – as may sometimes be preferable – a neutral party from outside the community.

What does a facilitator do to bring and keep people together? She calls them, listens to them, sends out notices, helps when they are discouraged, resolves differences, and brings cookies at appropriate times. She may facilitate meetings, keeps a positive and upbeat tone throughout - any or all of those things. She may not be the only person who does all these jobs, but if not, she makes sure the job gets done. A facilitator makes a big difference.

Find the information necessary to understand issues and possible solutions

In order to make good decisions, people involved in the collaborative will need good information. For example, you may need to know just how badly air pollution in a town affects the health of citizens. Or you may need the cost estimates of a proposed stricter air pollution law. Without dependable information, you cannot come up with workable solutions.

If accurate information is not available, there are ways of researching it. You can do some of the research before convening the collaborative, or you can ask people in the collaborative to do the research together. If the research is conducted by different interest groups working together, it has the potential of bringing groups closer and building cohesion.

Promote community empowerment

Multisector collaboratives have the greatest potential for improving democracy if they not only improve conditions for community members, but also promote community empowerment. As was stated before, empowerment occurs when people representing communities increase their capacity to lead. Community empowerment occurs when communities learn to lead institutions in reaching the goals that the communities themselves determine.

Of course, there are many different degrees of community empowerment in different multisector collaboratives. Certainly, in order to involve all the sectors, each one will provide leadership and will have a voice in determining goals. Unfortunately however, some multisector collaboratives do not give community members an equal role in the process. In these collaboratives, leaders of government, business and non -profit organizations set the agenda and make the decisions, with the community members acting in a limited advisory role. Such collaboratives may improve conditions for communities, but they don't help them build their capacity for making change occur. In planning a multisector collaborative, you can be aware of this possibility and set an empowerment direction early on.

How do you set up conditions to support community empowerment? In an empowerment approach to multisector collaboration, the community spends considerable time organizing itself before the collaborative is formed.

This preliminary preparation will include:

  • Mobilizing community support
  • Forming coalitions
  • Learning process skills
  • Developing leadership
  • Developing a vision and a mission
  • Setting priorities

If these steps are taken before the collaborative is established, then the community enters the multisector collaborative from a position of strength. It takes initiative, rather than reacting to the initiative of others.

Here are some recommendations for maximizing community empowerment in multisector collaboration:

  • Community residents should organize themselves and determine the purpose of the collaborative. If community members initiate the collaboration themselves, they can invite other institutions to join them and decide on the terms for participation.

This won’t happen by itself.  There has to be an initiating force – whether an individual or a group – and a reason – usually a community problem – that can bring the community together.  Community organization, especially in communities that have a long history of powerlessness and/or division, can be a long and difficult process.  Someone or some group has to have the vision of an empowered community, a cause that can motivate people, and the willingness to take on the task.  If you’re reading this, that may be you.

  • Community residents should be represented by their own organizations or coalitions of community organizations, rather than larger non-profit institutions that have the appearance of representation.
  • Community members should have a decision-making role rather than an advisory role.
  • The collaborative should be responsible to community residents as well as non -profit, private, or public institutions.
  • The community should shape the collaborative's agenda.
  • Community residents should help design action plans rather than leaving that solely to the "experts."

Example: The empowerment model in action

In 1974, residents and church leaders of the Crotona neighborhood in the Mid-Bronx (in New York City) formed a community-based, non-profit coalition called the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes (MBD). The coalition consisted of nine community-based civic organizations, churches, and block and tenant associations.

After organizing themselves, The MBD invited different businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and foundations to join it in reaching its goals. The goals were to renovate abandoned buildings, develop new housing opportunities, stimulate commercial revitalization, foster employment opportunities, restore necessary services, prevent crime, and help people find jobs. By the late 1980's the MBD, in a collaborative effort, reclaimed or built houses for more than 1,000 families, initiated career counseling programs, established the MBD Civilian Security Patrol, and restored a strong sense of pride to the community, among other accomplishments.

So, now you have successfully built a foundation on which your multisector collaborative can grow. What is next?

How do you continue to build and operate a multisector collaborative?

Once you have laid the groundwork and taken your beginning steps, how do you proceed? Below are some of the general steps that should be taken in building and running a multisector collaborative.

Each collaboration will be unique and will have different challenges and surprises, so use these steps as general guidelines. Some of these steps may take a short time, while others may take weeks or months. In multisector collaboration there is no cast-in-concrete route, but there are some basic principles you can use.

Identify the stakeholders

Early in the process of multisector collaboration, identify the stakeholders - those groups or individuals who affect or are affected by a problem. Then you want to make sure that the stakeholders are involved in the collaborative process either directly or through representatives. Why? Because if a problem is going to be solved, it has to encompass the interests, thinking, and perspectives of all those who could potentially help or hinder your effort.

So who are these stakeholders? They are people like you and me – people who pay taxes that are related to the issue, people who have family members involved, people who own property or businesses that are affected, people who can help or can block action, control resources, implement solutions, influence others, provide information, or are involved in any other way.

As you identify stakeholders, you may come up with surprising results. For example, when state and city officials invited interested parties to help solve the pollution problems of the Clark Fork River in the Western United States, they didn't realize how many different stakeholder groups existed. They found that the stakeholders were people who lived and worked all along the river, in different cities, towns, and states. They included Native Americans from the Salish and Kootenai Tribes who relied on water for their reservation; people who lived in towns from Montana to Washington who drank the water; loggers who used the river for waste disposal; tourists; outfitters; farmers who used water diverted from the River; utility companies that produced power; and people in Northwest Montana who used the electricity that the river generated.

If you want your multisector collaborative to succeed, you will need the cooperation and, better yet, the help of those who have a stake in the outcome. The level of involvement among the different groups will vary. Some people will come to every meeting, while some people may fill out one survey. The important thing is to touch base with all these people, and make sure they know they have a real say in the collaborative's work.

Make a commitment to collaborate

Early on, the different stakeholder groups should make a commitment to collaborate. That means that each group decides to share power, reach an agreement that is fair, and use the collaborative process, rather than behind-the-scenes politics. In making this commitment, the groups begin to throw in their lot with others.

Establish procedural ground rules

Also in the earlier stages of the collaboration, people need to make agreements, or ground rules, that will allow the multisector collaborative to do its business. As participants work out these agreements, they are taking ownership of the group and making it theirs. Together the group should establish how decisions will be made, who will speak to the media, what should be considered confidential, how information will be distributed, the role of representatives, and any other important procedural guidelines.

Ironing out these policies early will build trust and reduce opportunities for mistakes and misunderstandings. It is especially important to avoid any decision-making that goes on in unscheduled sessions in which all partners are not included.

Teach potential participants process skills

Process skills among participants are essential to making multisector collaborations work.

Process skills are any skills that help people work together constructively. For example, people need to know how to listen respectfully to other people's points of view, and how to work cooperatively in groups, a skill that many of us never learned in school. They must understand how to appreciate diversity and learn from people who have different values and views. And they need to learn methods for solving problems in groups.

Skilled facilitators can be hired to teach these process skills. Community members can also read books about these skills and practice with each other. Investing in this kind of skill-building is worthwhile not only because it helps the collaboration succeed, but also because it builds capacity in the community for solving problems together.

Build trust, learn process skills, and explore beliefs

As we discussed earlier, building trust is an important foundation for everything else. People really need to get to know one another in order to let themselves think about alliances or possibilities that previously seemed impossible. They need to get beyond their suspicions and see one another as human beings that they can relate to. This may take weeks or months to accomplish. In early discussions it is important to avoid hard-and-fast positions, but instead to have an attitude of exploration of ideas and possibilities.

So, specifically, when people first come together they should talk about their beliefs, their assumptions, their values, and what motivates them to work for their community. These kinds of discussions develop camaraderie, help people articulate their thinking, and move people towards a common vision. As people get to know and become accustomed to one another, they will be more able to work together creatively to find solutions that were not before imaginable.

Once people have gotten to know each other, trust should to continue to build. And as people work together successfully, trust will grow naturally. Throughout the relationship, you should be aware of the trust level of the group. If something happens that endangers trust, make sure action is taken to repair the trust and keep it growing.

Identify problems

After people have a chance to talk about themselves and their values, they can go on to identify general problems and specific issues. As we’ve emphasized, more time needs be taken to identify problems if they are complex and/or people do not agree on their nature . As people talk, they will be able to focus more clearly on what the central problem is. For example, if people share their different experiences of dealing with teen drug abuse in the community, a larger picture may emerge of where and why drug programs fall short. It may become obvious to everyone that parents in the community are not being reached effectively with drug prevention information or that there is no cohesive anti-drug program or policy, or that kids do not have enough recreational alternatives. Through these kinds of discussions your group will get a better idea of where to focus its efforts.

Clarify a vision and develop a mission statement

As people discuss their views and values, and clarify community problems, they are developing the groundwork for a vision and a mission statement. Developing a vision helps unify people and gives them direction. A mission statement will guide the collaborative as it begins to develop goals and an action plan.

Continue to keep the process open and get input from community members

Throughout the multisector collaboration, representatives need to keep going back to their communities for feedback and direction. The process needs to be open to ongoing input from community people. Otherwise, community members may be suspicious of the process, withhold support, or hinder the efforts of the collaboration.

To keep the process open, the collaborative can conduct open meetings, hold forums, distribute surveys, or use any other method that helps representatives both give people information and get their input.


The mayor and city council of Denver created a process for the Denver Bond Project, in which citizens served on a 92-person committee to prioritize projects for rebuilding infrastructure. People from diverse community sectors and walks of life, including housewives, doctors, and working people, made up the committee that reviewed the original $800 million of proposals for needed infrastructure improvements. Then the committee members had to make cuts to create a $200 million proposal that the public was more likely to approve. The cutting of programs was a painful but important process that really put the decisions into the public's hands. The results: the voters decided to increase their property taxes by $40 and passed all ten bond issues in a ballot initiative.

Create options for solving problems

Once a group has developed trust, agreed on a mission, and obtained community input, it is well positioned to do some creative problem solving. This is a good time for people to roll up their sleeves and go after solutions.

Either by working in committees or in the group as a whole, people can generate options for change. When people work together in groups, they often inspire each other to come up with solutions that they couldn't have created by themselves. By using a number of techniques groups can generate many options for solving problems, such as idea writing, brainstorming, focused discussions, or the nominal group technique.

Formulate goals, objectives, and an action plan

After the groundwork has been laid, it is time to set goals and draw up an action plan. In order for multisector collaboration to be successful, it has to achieve tangible, concrete results. Abstract discussions can only go so far. Your collaborative has to clean up the river, or build new bridges, or lower the high-school drop out rate, or accomplish other concrete goals. Here's an example of what one multisector collaborative was able to accomplish:

Example: HandMade in America, Western North Carolina

Need: To create sustainable community and economic development

Building a collaborative by focusing on craft, Handmade has brought together a broad-based group of people that includes craft organizations, tourism representatives, business people, educators, county governments, and interested citizens to "consider how craft and related activities can be the basis of sustainable community development in the region."

The results of the first two years of their 20-year strategic plan are quite remarkable:

  • A new system of National Craft Heritage Trails throughout the region, complete with a guidebook
  • A craft registry system for all regional craftspeople
  • A craft curriculum in four county school systems
  • A Main street Heritage Revitalization program in four of the region's smallest towns
  • An Institute of Craft, Creativity, and Design

Thanks to Suzanne Morse, Building Collaborative Communities, for the above example.

In drawing up your plan, try to make your action steps reasonably small. Even if the collaborative can't accomplish all its goals at once, it's good to accomplish some tangible smaller goals sooner rather than later. This builds people's confidence and encourages them to keep going.

Implement the action plan

Now, all that's left is implementation. In some ways the hardest part is over; in other ways the effort is just beginning. The multisector collaborative has to create or find a structure, the resources, and the commitment to implement the action plan. The multisector collaborative can coordinate and oversee the implementation itself, the participating organizations can take responsibility for implementation, or a new organization can be created to carry out the collaborative's programs.

However the plan is implemented, the multisector collaborative should continue to take responsibility to ensure that it is a success. The collaborative may need to work with the public to generate support, mediate differences that surface among groups, raise the necessary financial resources, or do whatever else is needed. Whatever the tasks, it's the collaborative's job to stay on top of things until the goals are achieved.

Evaluate the results

The collaborative should not only monitor the progress in accomplishing its goals, and oversee the group's efforts, but should also continuously evaluate the work it has done. By doing so, the collaborative can identify mistakes and correct them to ensure that it reaches its goals. Evaluation will also help build the collaborative's credibility so that it can increase its potential to accomplish more in the future.

Celebrate every success, large and small

Along the way, don't forget to celebrate every success. We all need some fun and connection with others to help us keep our eyes on the prize. Celebrating helps people maintain their energy and excitement, recognize the progress being made at the end of a campaign, and focus on the next step. Whether it's a pizza at the end of a meeting or a gala ball, acknowledge the good things that are going on, and the good people who are doing them.

Continue the collaborative community

After you've succeeded in accomplishing your goals, take advantage of the investment you have already made in establishing your multisector collaborative. Build upon your momentum; continue to develop your community of leaders.

Now you can begin to reach for greater goals. And in doing so, it makes sense to continue nurturing the relationships you worked so hard to establish. These relationships are key in solving further problems and achieving the vision of what you want your community to be like. So what's next on your agenda?

In Summary

As community builders, we can accomplish more than we let ourselves imagine, especially if we can work together. As we solve difficult problems through multisector collaboration, we are laying the groundwork for a new kind of society - one in which many different kinds of people figure out how to work together to make our communities better for everyone.

In many ways, the real practice of democracy is relatively new. We are all still learning how to include more people in the day-to-day processes of thinking together, overcoming conflicts, communicating effectively, making proposals, solving problems, and making decisions.

Multisector collaboration is a method not only for solving problems, but also for giving people opportunities to practice skills in democracy. And the more we practice, the more successful we will become in making our communities the way we really want them to be.

You are central in making democracy work. Community leaders like you make all the difference in transforming our communities into the kinds of communities we hope to live in.

Marya Axner

Online Resource

Association for Community Health Improvement

Chapter 10: Empowerment in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" addressed the different levels of empowerment, how to contribute to power redistribution, and ways to take action to make changes in communities.

Resources for Collaboration and Power Sharing Between Government Agencies and Community Power-Building Organizations. This resource guides health departments through the why and how of partnering with Community Power-Building Organizations (CPBOs) to advance health equity, via four guides with activities to build capacity and lay the groundwork for power sharing partnerships.


Print Resources

Brown, C. (1984). The art of coalition building: A guide for community leaders. New York, NY: The American Jewish Committee.

Chrislip, D., & Larson, E., (1994). Collaborative leadership: How citizens and civic leaders can make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fawcett, S. (adapted from Gray, 1991). Considerations in reviewing the process of collaboration.

Himmelman, A. (1992). Communities working collaboratively for a change. Minneapolis: The Himmelman Consulting Group.

Morse, W.(1996). Building collaborative communities. Charlottesville, VA : Pew Partnership for Civic Change.