This post is part one of a two-part series on how to develop partnerships across sectors in prevention efforts, highlighting examples from our work with education and social services. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week - lessons from practice. 

Interested in hearing directly from people doing this work on the ground? We’ll be hosting a webinar on December 1st!

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Everyone seems to know that collaboration within and between sectors is a more effective approach to addressing social problems than siloed work. So, why don’t we see more of it happening? Examples of successful, sustained collaboration between organizations – let alone sectors – are not easy to come by. Among the few examples, it is difficult to find helpful, practical tips on how to go about this work, beyond vague and abstract recommendations. What is the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Demonstration Lab (MtS DEMS) doing about this, given that our work depends on the collaborative efforts of stakeholders across sectors? We are embarking on projects centered around a continuous improvement model, based on evidence from research and practice. In addressing youth homelessness through prevention, for example, we know that the education sector has a crucial role in identifying risk and increasing access to supports. However, because youth homelessness is not generally within the scope of practice in education, the social services and education sectors are unaccustomed to partnering in this work.

Chain link made out of people

The major challenges to collaborative work between the education and social services sectors are demonstrative of the same barriers identified across research literatures (e.g., Bode, Rogan & Singh, 2019; Klitsie, Ansari & Volberda, 2018) for example, different institutional norms and cultures, as well as priorities – and the numerous relational and resource-related issues within these areas. Thanks, in large part, to the knowledge we gained from research, we have been able to make significant progress in our collaborative efforts. We looked to literatures across policy science, implementation science, systems reform and scaling social innovations (e.g., Fixen, Blasé & Van Dyke, 2019; Powell, Nutley & Davies, 2018; Sohn, 2017; Voltan & De Fuentes, 2016; Moore & Riddell, 2015; Asrar-ul-Haq & Anwar, 2016; Cairney, 2016; Westley et al., 2014; Diochon & Anderson, 2011) and extracted themes to inform our approach and answer the question: 

How can we overcome the major hurdles to collaboration with a sector partner that is not conventionally engaged in the issue we aim to address – in our case, homelessness prevention?

The answer:  Find and contribute to creating the right window of opportunity

Open window

Political acuity is key to being attuned to the opportune times in approaching potential partners in the policy and practice worlds. The three ‘P’s to keep in mind are: Politics, People and Power (Sohn, 2017; Kingdon, 1984). These general areas refer to the broader context such as policy culture, timing of elections and fiscal climate; key leaders, their motivations and positions of authority; and influencing forces such as advocacy, media, public opinion and networks. This framework is useful to be aware of, since decision-making at the organization level are heavily influenced by these external conditions. While many of these elements are out of our direct control, we can focus on how to increase receptivity to new initiatives that might initially seem burdensome to an already overwhelmed sector. In short, the groundwork begins with an understanding of the broader climate and how to conceptualize and communicate the issue, proposed response and intended outcomes as aligned to the context.

How can we apply this knowledge?

In times of crisis (such as a global pandemic), crisis-focused responses are required. At the same time, the case for prevention is even more clear as social problems such as domestic violence, income insecurity and high risk behaviours in youth worsen. Being attuned to the efforts and priorities that concern other sectors and organizations help to re-imagine and re-frame the issue(s) of concern in a way that aligns with and leverages on their priorities. For example, the education sector is concerned with educational equity and the pandemic has magnified concerns about supporting at-risk students to stay engaged in school. Educators will not have the capacity to take on a ‘work-add’ partnership or initiative that is targeted to an issue outside of their scope of practice (such as homelessness). Instead, they are far more likely to be receptive to an initiative that works to alleviate the social care burdens of teachers and lighten their load.

So, rather than approaching schools with a proposal to partner on a youth homelessness prevention project, reframe it as: a project that is meant to support at-risk students with unstable home lives and housing situations (anticipated to increase due to pandemic stressors) - towards more equitable outcomes. This speaks to their priorities and addresses context-based needs. Being astute in the three Ps of the broader climate can effectively inform how well your messaging resonates with key partners through reframing and open up the window of opportunity for collaboration. 

Applying this research knowledge is exactly what we did in developing Upstream Canada – a cross-sector partnership initiative to prevent youth homelessness and school disengagement through early intervention. This guide details how it works and includes sections that have proven to effectively make the case for the education sector as a partner in prevention. 


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DOI: 10.1080/23311975.2015.1127744

Bode, C., Rogan, M., & Singh, J. (2019). Sustainable cross-sector collaboration: Building a global platform for social impact. Academy of Management Discoveries, Vol. 5(4). 

de Bruin, A. Shaw, E. & Lewis, K.V. (2017). The collaborative dynamic in social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, vol.29(7-8), 575-585. DOI: 10.1080/08985626.2017.1328902

Cairney P (2016) The Politics of Evidence‐Based Policymaking. Palgrave Pivot, London

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Fixsen, D. L., Blase, K. A., & Van Dyke, M. (2019). Implementation quotient. Chapel Hill, NC: Active Implementation Research Network.  

Klitsie, E.J., Ansari, S. & Volberda, H.W. (2018). Maintenance of Cross-Sector Partnerships: The Role of Frames in Sustained Collaboration. Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 150(2), 401-423

Powell, A., Davies, HT.O., & Nutley, S.M. (2018). Facing the challenges of research-informed knowledge mobilization: ‘Practising what we preach’?. Public Administration. vol.96, 36-52.

Sohn, J. (2017). The Politics of Evidence-Informed Policymaking: a case study of the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy [Doctoral Thesis, University of Toronto]. TSpace Repository.

Voltan, A. and De Fuentes, C. (2016). Managing multiple logics in partnerships for scaling social innovation. European Journal of Innovation Management. vol.19(4), 446 467.

Westley, F., and Antadze, N. (2010). Making a difference: Strategies for scaling social innovation for greater impact. The Innovation Journal, vol.15(2). 

Westley, F., Antadze, N., Riddell, D. J., Robinson, K., & Geobey, S. (2014). Five Configurations for Scaling Up Social Innovation: Case Examples of Nonprofit Organizations From Canada. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science50(3), 234–260.