Reaching across the aisle: The case for cross-sector connection

By Deanna Cioppa
In early 2013 Oxfam published the results of a ?two-year study? of labor conditions at Unilever’s factory in Vietnam. The study, to which Unilever voluntarily complied, revealed critical weaknesses in the company’s business practices that left its workers with low wages, overly long hours, and reporting outlets they were afraid to use.

But because Unilever agreed a) to be the subject of this study, b) to share its results publicly in order to shed a light on the impact of multinationals in emerging countries, and (c) to let the report include its plans to address the problems uncovered by Oxfam (including a two-year check-in by the watchdog), the company preempted a media indictment and may even have racked up a little goodwill as its dirty laundry was aired. At the very least it mitigated the PR damage.

This collaboration between non-profit regulator and private-sector giant accomplished a lot. Not only did it benefit Unilever’s workers, it also helped Oxfam to understand the thinking behind multinational labor practices and Unilever to save face. No surprise then that industry insiders are calling for more collaboration across the NPO/private-sector divide, a collaboration that goes beyond philanthropic giving toward a partnership that marries intellectual capital and hard resources to achieve definitive results.

Cross-sector collaboration, though, need not be limited to non-profit/for-profit relationships. Collaboration across industries can help complete projects, hatch fresh ideas, solve technical problems, and, yes, help businesses and charitable organizations address social needs. As you build your relationship capital, ask yourself this: Are you too focused on your sphere of influence or are you diversifying your web of contacts? We tend to network within our own industries, but the more we branch out, the more likely it is that we’ll broaden and deepen our intellectual and social reach.

So make it a point over the next month to take one meeting or meal with someone at your level of experience at an organization wholly out of your usual circles. That person is almost certain to be involved in some process or project from which you’ll more than earn back your investment of time and money. From more robust networks come more useful and original solutions.

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s. This is her second piece for RelSci.

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