Better Together: Five Ways to Boost Cross-Sector Collaboration in Cities

Through Mesa’s Love Your Neighborhood program, city departments and volunteers team up with residents living in blighted neighborhoods to make improvements. Photo Credit: City of Mesa.

By Simone Brody

No city can go it alone — nor should they have to. As U.S. cities work to meet the diverse needs of their communities while coping with strained budgets, local governments are increasingly turning to nonprofit, academic, and business partners to stretch local, state, and federal dollars and accelerate change. Collaboration across sectors is essential. It’s also challenging, but well worth the effort.

I have worked in multiple sectors from venture capital to city government to nonprofits — with a focus on solving social problems. My colleagues working on similar issues across sectors have had strikingly similar goals, but each sector speaks its own language, faces unique challenges, and assigns different values to outputs, such as time, cost, quality, and reach. These differences can create gulfs that feel wide and that organizations must bridge for a partnership to succeed. We may all be tackling the same problems, but we are too often tackling them in silos.

In June, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the American Cities Initiative, a $200 million investment to generate innovative ideas and advance public policy that moves the nation’s cities forward. This new program connects a number of cross-sector collaborations initiated by Bloomberg Philanthropies, including What Works Cities, a network of 85 mid-sized cities using data and evidence to improve the effectiveness of local governments.

Mayor Marty Walsh gathers with other Bostonians to celebrate the reopening of a local playground. Photo Credit: @marty_walsh on Twitter.

We are increasingly seeing examples of effective collaboration between the private, nonprofit, and public sectors in our What Works Cities community, and across each of the initiatives in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation portfolio.

The Envision Charlotte launch at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative
  • Envision Charlotte is a collaboration between Duke Energy, Cisco, Charlotte Center City Partners, and city government to make buildings in Charlotte more energy efficient. The initiative aims to decrease energy use in Charlotte by 20%, and its success has already spurred 10 other U.S. cities to launch their own Envision programs.
A neighborhood hurricane preparedness exercise in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo Credit: @Jorge_Elorza on Twitter.

There’s a lot of untapped potential to expand and improve collaborative projects. Here are five recommendations to make it easier:

  1. Cultivate multi-sector “translators.” We should expand programs that allow budding social change leaders to work in the public sector via internships or leadership training programs, like Coro, before developing private sector solutions to public-good challenges. If a startup CEO could spend just two weeks in a city hall, it could make a world of difference in developing innovative and achievable solutions.

By approaching partnerships as cultural exchanges, we can transform them from transactional interactions to true collaborations. The upside of success is far too great not to try.

Originally published at on September 6, 2017.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.