Learning in the Blurry Space Between Mission and Profit

(3BL Media and Just Means)--The time to engage across sectors is now. In fact, cross-sector collaboration is in the zeitgeist. Progressive thought leaders agree that to gain traction on complex problems, we need to convene broad-based coalitions of nontraditional partners. However, communicating across sectors can be really hard, as we run up against sector-specific argots, worldviews and unexamined biases. To work together well, we need to learn how to speak one another’s languages, analyze different financials, and understand cross-sector, value propositions. And it begins in academia. 

According to Sean Conley, Associate Dean for Graduate & Professional Studies at Marlboro College in Brattleboro Vermont, there’s a call for more transparency and cross-sector collaboration in education, but it’s a challenge for many institutions.

“It’s not easy to be a history major and a biologist, for example. That’s the level of cross-disciplinary we need. And, in the world of sustainability in business exists within a larger system of which non- profits are part.  Twenty-percent of the economy in Vermont is driven by the nonprofit system. These are two sectors which are merging in society,” says Conley.

Calls for cross-sector collaboration are everywhere. Based on an extensive review of the scholarly literature on collaboration, John Bryson, Barbara Crosby and Melissa Middleton Stone at the University of Minnesota conclude: “People who want to tackle tough social problems and achieve beneficial community outcomes are beginning to understand that multiple sectors of a democratic society— business, nonprofits and philanthropies, the media, the community, and government—must collaborate to deal effectively and humanely with the challenges.”  

What if we could teach cross-sector translation in business school? Marlboro College Graduate School decided to find out, by bringing its MBA in Managing for Sustainability and MS in Managing Mission-Driven Organizations students and faculty together through shared coursework and collaborative learning environment. 

“It was an experiment that worked beyond our expectations. After a short period of curiosity and mild distrust students and faculty fell into an easy colleagueship and appreciation for what can be learned from one another,” says Pat Daniel, MBA Degree Chair.

The interest in collaboration across academic programs reflects a more general fascination with hybrid business forms. In addition to Marlboro College Graduate School, other business schools like George Mason University recognize this trend with new coursework in social enterprise. And some graduate programs in nonprofit management also include a class in public-private partnerships or collective impact.

“These courses typically unfold within an overall educational model that maintains a firewall between MBA students and their nonprofit colleagues,” says Kate Jellema, chair of the MS in Managing Mission-Driven Organizations program at Marlboro College Graduate School. “What we are doing at Marlboro is knocking down the wall and encouraging direct connections among all of our management students.”

Cheryl Eaton, Professor of Marketing at Marlboro College Graduate School and Founder of Wild Genius says it comes down to working towards common, end goals and that there are fewer differences than we assume.

“I appreciate the synergy between the MBA and MDO programs. It’s the alchemy of a mix of people who care deeply about their impact, but who come from two, seemingly different orientations. We are not-for-profit and for-profit working in tandem on the mission of making the world a better place,” she adds.

Cross-sector learning is a priority in the classroom because it’s the future of our economy. And, it’s already the way of operation for many, large multi-national companies. According to Conley, Google, for example, understands the importance of creating a culture of learning across sectors and within its own walls. However, one of Google’s industry counterparts does not. 

“Google is great at taking a learning and collaborative approach in business development, but Microsoft is very competitive. One company knows the value of intentionally bringing employees together to learn from one another and the other is struggling to keep up,” say Conley.

Conley says that academia needs to foster the types of competition which spurs beneficial outcomes across systems and to frame competition through the lens of collaboration.  Students at Marlboro College Graduate School appreciate the diversity that the cross-sector learning community model encourages. Jay Kullman, a second-year MSM-MDO student, sees the cross-program synergy as good preparation for the new and emerging economy.

“Business is changing. Many for-profits are taking into consideration things other than profit. Likewise, I see the evolution of nonprofits being run with a greater focus on best business practices. At Marlboro the perspectives of for-profit and non-profit students come together and it is really valuable for all of us.”

MBA student Noah Fishman concurs: “The future of business will be in a space between nonprofit and for-profit sectors, and we need the best of both sectors.”

Read John Bryson, Barbara Crosby and Melissa Middleton Stone at the University of Minnesota’s call to cross-sector collaboration. Learn about Marlboro College Graduate Degrees MBA in Managing for Sustainability and MS in Managing Mission-Drive Organizations.

Credit: Thanks to Kate Jellema and Pat Daniel for their contribution in the writing of this piece.