Four Key Pieces of a Contemporary Corporate Collaboration

By Laura Royden • May 12, 2016

Finding long-term sources of funding for special projects can be difficult for cities. Frequently, they receive grant money to begin an initiative, but often funding runs out before the program has made a noticeable difference. Collaborating with large businesses may offer a solution. Cities have traditionally regarded corporations in terms of economic development and local tax revenue, but lately some have partnered creatively with multinational companies to develop innovative programs.

A cross-sector partnership on occupational training for city youth, for instance, might involve the local business community providing direct guidance to nonprofits and community colleges on skills they are seeking, the results of which could help a city better allocate its resources. Not only does collaboration align priorities, it benefits all parties: training programs are more successful, industries receive a more prepared workforce, and cities enjoy lower unemployment.

These kinds of collaborations were the centerpiece of a panel at the 15th Convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation. The discussion centered around four key themes common to successful partnerships between municipalities and large corporations: they must be mutually beneficial, sustainable long-term, inclusive of relevant nonprofits and jurisdictions, and manageable in scope.

Creating Mutually Beneficial Collaborations

The conversation began by spotlighting partnerships currently underway in Louisville, K.Y. Ted Smith, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, discussed how Louisville’s public health department partnered with Humana to increase the health and wellbeing of residents by improving their physical surroundings. Humana, a large health insurance company, wanted to have better control of healthcare costs. The city wanted to better understand how environmental factors were affecting community health. By being transparent about their goals from the outset, they were able to work more efficiently toward common goals.

Louisville also partnered with LinkedIn to gain insights on its labor market. Nicole Isaac, LinkedIn’s Head of U.S. Policy, said that the company wanted encourage use of its platform while learning how their data and analytics team could add value to the city. The city wanted an alternative to outdated and inaccurate federal datasets on local labor markets. By finding common ground between their priorities, they created a partnership that benefitted each side: more people join LinkedIn as the city encourages universities to ensure students have online profiles, and the city receives better data from LinkedIn about who’s succeeding in the local economy.

“Partnerships are about understanding shared goals, shared priorities, being mutually beneficial, and understanding that the expectations are clear from the outset,” Isaac said.

Building Sustainable Initiatives

A pet project of a mayor risks fizzling out under his or her successor. Many collaborations with corporations come from mayoral priorities, but good initiatives should be built to ensure sustainability. Corporations can help provide stability by providing much needed resources, knowledge, and dedicated staff to drive long-term work on structural problems intended to last beyond a potential administration change.

One strategy cities can use to ensure sustainability is to have public employees actively share ownership of the project. Buy-in from those who will remain in city hall and work on these initiatives every day is crucial. If employees care about and believe in the initiative, the city will be more likely to find money for it and work to sustain it, regardless of who’s in office.

Coordinating Across Organizations

In large cities, many nonprofits, community organizations, government agencies, and even corporations often tackle the same problem, sometimes unsuccessfully, which can impede progress. Working to better coordinate efforts can prevent repetitive work and better leverage resources to more effectively solve problems.

The convening power of the mayor can have a big impact here. By bringing all relevant parties to the table and calling broadly on the community for support, mayors can help to focus an approach, eliminate redundant efforts, and ensure that everyone are on the same page. Better communication across organizations can help cities identify vulnerabilities in their service delivery models, allowing them to better guide their collaborations.

Collaboration across municipalities can also be important, especially in large metropolitan areas. In the Bay Area, for instance, many problems such as unemployment or homelessness span across multiple jurisdictions. Support from large companies can be an asset here, and a collaborative, regional approach can help cities and their partners more effectively work together.

Prioritizing Without Overcommitting

Corporate collaborations can help governments expand their capacity, but city representatives also noted the importance of managing internal capacity and cautioned against entering into an unmanageable number of collaborations.

Corporations and nonprofits are becoming more eager to partner with city governments, especially mayors' offices, which simply don’t have the capacity to accept every proposal. A direct solution could be a citywide partnership plan that explains a city’s current partnerships and resources to potential new partners, which would help prevent partners from feeling slighted if the city decides not to pursue the collaboration.

Ted Smith proposed a simple test: is this partnership the mayor’s priority? If not, consider directing the partnership away from the mayor’s office. Often potential partners can be directed to the legislature, the Chamber of Commerce, or another organization that might have better resources, staff, or experience in the relevant area. “Maybe you’re not saying no, but you’re saying yes in a different way,” Smith explained.

About the Author

Laura Royden

Laura Royden is the research assistant for Data-Smart City Solutions. She holds a bachelor's degree from MIT in urban studies and planning.