Real World Collaboration in Times of Polarization•
Mark Edwards and Sarah Beaulieu, Opportunity Nation
The newly passed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act illustrates how organizations can find space to debate and successfully create cross-sector and bipartisan solutions.
Problems in the United States aren’t getting any smaller, and it’s becoming harder to advance solutions—but that’s not because there aren’t good ideas with demonstrated impact. As the recent SSIR article, “Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization,” pointed out, increasingly all sectors—public, private, and nonprofit—are suffering from the effects of polarization in how we view the world, talk about ideas, and identify solutions. So it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate and learn from one of those rare moments when the US political system works the way it’s supposed to: Congress, aided by input and collaboration from the private and nonprofit sectors, negotiates and reaches a compromise that benefits millions of Americans.
On July 9, after more than a decade of divisiveness and inaction, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) by huge margins, reauthorizing the woefully outdated Workforce Investment Act that provides crucial job skills training for adults, dislocated workers, youth, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. This $3-billion-a-year program is the largest single source of federal funding for workforce training. The final WIOA bill also strengthens data and accountability measures across all job training programs to provide for more evaluation and reporting of workforce programs. Until reauthorization, we have been training workers the same way we did in 1998, when Google was still in beta, dial-up Internet was the norm, and smart phones were the stuff of science fiction.
There was broad agreement on why we needed to update the bill; it was the how that nearly derailed the process. Bipartisan collaboration—any collaboration for that matter—is more than just holding hands and singing songs. The day-to-day grind isn’t glamorous. It’s about pushing through dozens of conversations with people who don’t agree on every point. It’s about respecting the interests of others while protecting your own. It’s about balancing the greater good with your need to deliver value or proof of impact to your specific stakeholders.
Most of us agree that multiple players must be at the table to achieve what Jeffrey Bradach terms “transformative scale.” But it is not always easy to create a space where we can debate and create cross-sector and bipartisan solutions. How can we set a table that will allow all players to feel included, heard, and celebrated?
Our organization Opportunity Nation took this challenge of collaboration head on when creating a bipartisan policy agenda to ensure that young adults have access to multiple pathways to education and employment. We worked to find common ground with our diverse coalition of more than 300 nonprofits, businesses, and higher-education institutions; we also sought input from conservative, liberal, and moderate scholars at the Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, and Brookings Institution.
With a collaborative policy agenda in hand, we connected with Congressional offices on both sides of the aisle so that they would see us as a reliable resource and honest broker. We communicated frequently with Congressional staff to deliver relevant information. For example, as part of our recommendations to connect the workforce development system with education and employers, we provided examples of successful models, legislative recommendations, and access to experts on the ground. We even hosted a Capitol Hill visit with employers, nonprofits, community college leaders, and young adults to bring these ideas to life. The bipartisan WIOA bill embodies this idea of collaboration: cross-sector solutions that focus on outcomes to help America’s job seekers succeed.
When leading or participating in a collaborative effort, it’s important to remember that it won’t happen by itself. It needs nudging, follow up, tools, and incentives. Participants should include organizations and individuals with differing opinions, and work hard to find opportunities to compromise. Leave the hot-button issues at home to start.
Standing up for the collective good is good for you and good for your organization. Every organization should try to establish a goal to spend at least a small percentage of its time, energy, and resources on collaboration—whether through meeting with like-minded organizations, participating in organized advocacy or collaborative efforts, or using tools developed by others that support your work. As Year UpFounder Gerald Chertavian puts it, “There is no limit to what we can achieve … once we stop worrying about who gets credit.” The truth is that collaboration often allows you to share credit for a larger win than you could have achieved on your own.
As a national campaign dedicated to scaling social change, Opportunity Nation continually learns from an emerging peer group that includes organizations such as America’s Promise Alliance, Council for a Strong America, and Too Small to Fail, among many others. And we are grateful to the philanthropies and philanthropists who have helped all of us take the risks necessary to demonstrate the value of working together.
Collaboration can be scary. But to affect meaningful change in today’s society, we must be willing to engage partners from all sectors and views. As evidenced by WIOA’s long road, it’s not going to happen instantaneously. But when collaboration and bipartisanship work, it makes the victory that much sweeter.