Global Cooperation

Why cross-sector collaboration is key to building more resilient communities

'Cross-sector collaboration is the only way we can solve the world’s toughest issues.'

'Cross-sector collaboration is the only way we can solve the world’s toughest issues.' Image: Shutterstock

Angela Williams
President and Chief Executive Officer, United Way Worldwide
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Angela Williams' experience as a child of US civil rights leaders defined her and her life-long mission to be an advocate for the disadvantaged.
  • But while communities across the world continue to face 'challenging times', she believes that humanity always perseveres and rises to the challenge.
  • Here she outlines why working together will be key to building resilient and equitable communities, and a better future for people and the planet.

As the eldest child of US civil rights leaders in the turbulent 1960s, I was a firsthand witness to the best and worst of humanity – and I received a masterclass in seeing what bravery looks like. My father spent most of my formative years investigating lynchings and other heinous acts against Black people. And it was very dangerous work.

I remember our phones being tapped. I remember our church members keeping watch over our front porch, armed with a shotgun, protecting my family from regular and active threats to our safety.

I remember hearing my parents talk about their work with iconic leaders like Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and feeling the weight of their fight for justice. These early childhood events and memories shaped me into the person and leader I am today.

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My experiences awoke in me a personal mission to be an advocate for the disadvantaged – fighting to provide more for people with less access to healthcare, education and economic opportunity. Today, I stand at the helm of one of the oldest and largest charitable organizations in the world, where I address the challenges being faced by individuals, families and communities, day in and day out.

Over the past few years, humanity has confronted a global pandemic, growing economic inequality, accelerating climate disasters, ground war, and conflict. And these phenomena have exacerbated extant disparities in critical areas like poverty, food security, access to healthcare, and overall well-being.

As the new year dawns, we remain optimistic and hopeful for better days ahead; but we must also remain realistic in knowing that the challenges we have recently witnessed and experienced will continue to reverberate for years to come.

Times have always been challenging

We frequently hear comments and sayings like, “We are living in challenging times.” Let’s be honest: the “times” have always been challenging. If not politically, then economically. If not economically, then socially. But even in times of crisis, humanity always perseveres and rises to the challenge.

Though we likely will not understand the economic and mental toll of COVID-19 for many years to come, we have largely recovered and moved on from the pandemic. We have rebuilt infrastructures destroyed by natural disasters. And we have welcomed new people to our communities seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families.

Humans are an innovative and resilient species. We are constantly creating tools and systems that help us to thrive. As we continue to develop, we, as a civilization, must consider our stewardship of this beautiful planet. Integral to that mission is how we treat our fellow human beings.

It is within our power to eliminate the human-induced phenomena that create hardship, war, discrimination, poverty, food insecurity and so many other social ills. Each of us, no matter where we live, are likely within short reach of someone’s hardship, which also impacts us in some form or another. The strength of any community is measured by the collective success of every individual.

As we strive to triumph over the challenges we face, our efforts will be easier when we choose to act with proactive intent and endow every person in every community with the tools and resources to lead a life of peace, joy and opportunity. Our communities need us now more than ever. Our planet needs us now more than ever.

History has presented innumerable examples that demonstrate that when we work together and seek common ground, we are better off as a whole. In working together across societies and sectors, humanity can confront and defeat the increasing challenges that yield far-reaching consequences for our lives and futures.

Cross-sector collaboration key to solving world’s issues

Cross-sector collaboration is the only way we can solve the world’s toughest issues, and these efforts can be accelerated by leveraging cutting-edge research and innovation alongside community trust to develop unique understandings of barriers.

We cannot have one without the other. We need to author a new playbook on the ways companies, local governments and civil society can creatively partner to build resilient and equitable communities. As the famous African proverb says, “If you want to go far, go together.”

Non-profits cannot do it alone. Governments cannot do it alone. Businesses cannot do it alone. We cannot create systemic change without partners because each sector has special relationships, responsibilities, and reach across communities.


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Cross-sector partnerships enable us to scale impact and leverage the issue-expertise, financial resources, broad buy-in, efficiency, and on-the-ground relationships associated with individual sectors. Partnerships between the private sector, non-profits, governments and communities are the only way to make that happen.

In choosing to collaborate across sectors, we must be mindful that we always collaborate with communities. We must ensure that we obtain the voices and perspectives of people at all levels of the community. Efforts to improve or advance community-focused work cannot be successful if voices are discounted or ignored.

We are the partners of communities; not their saviors. No organization can insert itself into a community and think it has all the answers. It never does. The most impactful form of engagement with proven records of success involves genuinely partnering with individuals on the ground, and incorporating their lived experiences, perspectives, and ideas into our organizations.


Solutions to our world’s greatest challenges won’t come from the boardroom. They come from listening to and working with impacted individuals, and co-creating together. As Jeanine Becker and David B. Smith note, “cross sector leaders recognize that the most robust and sustainable solutions will come from designing with (and not just for) the communities most affected.”

Let us strive to create a world where communities deliver equitable solutions to achieve lasting change, giving everyone the chance to thrive. Let us ensure every member of every community has a voice in determining outcomes for the community.

Let us prioritize policies that are rooted in advancing racial and economic opportunity, fostering cross-sector collaboration and problem-solving, and promoting civic engagement and democracy. We will be better for it – and so will our planet.

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