Navigating Intersector Collaborations in Resilience

Norfolk, Virginia Norfolk, Virginia Melinda Fawver /

With two-thirds of the world’s population forecast to live in urban areas by 2050, there is increasing focus in the public and social sectors on “resilient cities” — cities that can “bounce forward,” anticipating and adapting to changes in the environmental, social, and economic landscape.Community Matters, a program of the Orton Family Foundation that works to build strong communities, recently hosted a conference call with Christine Morris, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Norfolk, and Michael Crowley, Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, on how communities can prepare for and respond to unanticipated change.

We participated in the call, eager to hear perspectives on how cross-sector collaboration plays a role in resilience efforts (spoiler alert — it plays a big one) and were thrilled when Morris provided valuable insights into how she navigates cross-sector partnerships in Norfolk, where resilience efforts are supported by The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge.

In Norfolk, Morris said, resilience strategy focuses on:

  • Building resilience in people
  • Building resilience in place
  • Building resilience in organizations
  • Building resilience in knowledge systems

Collaboration is “absolutely critical” to resilience efforts, Morris said. Because of the resource constraints experienced by each sector, “there’s just no way to make any significant headway on your own.” Morris added that “it is only through these cross-disciplinary conversations that real innovation can occur. So not only is it necessary, but I think it’s even desirable to look for and talk with people who view the world slightly differently than you do, and the innovation really can start there.”

Part of Morris’ work in Norfolk involved a cross-sector, multi-stakeholder assessment of the city’s main resilience-related stressors — illuminating a tactic our work refers to as Build a Common Fact Base. “It was no shock to us when we talked to hundreds and hundreds of our stakeholders that 86 percent said flooding and living on the coast was our biggest resilience challenge.” Morris said that economic issues and concentrated poverty were identified as other key stressors.

Morris offered this advice for creating partnerships in resilience.

  • Be respectful. The collaboration’s work should be important, meaningful, and time-delineated.
  • Be clear on your goals. The ask of potential partners should be concrete.
  • Be focused in forging partnerships. In identifying potential partnerships, look for places where like interests intersect, and forge ahead with different partners in different areas where there is real mission alignment.

“I do think that if you’re going to ask people to come on a journey with you that you have to be very respectful, that it has to be important work, that it has to be meaningful, that it has to be time delineated, that the goals have to be clear, that what you’re asking them at the beginning is concrete…And then that you look for those places where like interests intersect, and that you really forge ahead with partners in different areas, where your desires and your goals really align well. Because I think that sometimes you can seek partnership across too wide a swath, where the goals don’t align and the power of the partnership can dissipate,” Morris explained.

Morris’ insightful advice echoes tactics we see practitioners employ across our case library —both in resilience efforts and other areas. Establish Transparency of Viewpoints, Share a Vision of Success, Build a Common Fact Base, Agree on Measures of Success, Manage Expectations of Process and Results are several tools that are key in establishing an environment defined by respect, clear goals, and shared expectations for process among partners.

“It’s a delicate balance between having everybody at the table and having too few people at the table,” Morris said. “But I think if you think about trying to look for diversity around ideas and alignment to goals, you’ll have a long way to having success.”

This article was originally posted on the blog of The Intersector Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing collaboration across sectors as a way to address society's complex issues, and is republished here with permission.


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