After a sixteen-month study in Canada, Dr. Sarah Easter decided to immerse herself into a coalition made up of more than 40 churches, non-profits, governmental and business organizations working toward one common goal – ending homelessness in Victoria, British Columbia.
In the midst of working alongside other colleagues and her committee, Easter found some interesting findings within her research and consequently won the best paper award for her dissertation in the Managerial and Organizational Cognition division at the annual Academy of Management meeting.
“I was really surprised when I won,” Easter said. “I was at the interest meeting with my division where they give updates on what’s happening in research, and I knew this paper was in the proceedings, which was already great. And then, to be sitting there and hear my name called was quite surprising, but humbling. I’m so appreciative to all the people who helped me along in the process and getting the paper to where it was. And then, everyone who was part of the coalition who was willing to share their story and journey.”
Easter, assistant professor of management, said her dissertation, titled Process in Negotiating Identity in a Cross Sector Partnership, focused primarily on the coalition’s interactions, members and how their various interpretations, focal points and strategic planning impacted their overall goal.
After returning from a one-year assignment in 2010 as a business development and marketing adviser in Vietnam, Easter decided to study at the University of Victoria for her doctoral degree and began to work alongside other scholars who have a passion for sustainability and cross cultural management – this was the start of her coalition research.
“I was involved in a lot of their meetings, sitting in and trying to understand how do they all work together,” Easter said. “They all have a common interest to solve this very significant issue, but they all have different ways of working. The governmental players handle things in more of a planning-based manner. A lot of the businesses were focused on efficiency. The nonprofits were focused primarily on the people experiencing homelessness and making sure that all of the solutions they were coming up with were beneficial to them. And so, it’s all these different ways of working, and they have a common goal, but they do things differently, and they’re tensions there.”
While Easter did manage to encapsulate the coalition’s interactions, she also found how complex the nature of wanting to tackle any societal topic can be.
Whether it be ending homelessness, reducing the negative stigma around persons with disabilities or understanding the reasoning behind governmental social policies, Easter wanted to know what a real coalition could do if given the chance to make a change.
“I think homelessness is a really significant, societal issue,” Easter said, “and I was really interested in how this particular coalition was going about that. What were the challenges associated when you bring so many different players together? What are they capable of?”
With her intellectual spirit and tranquil persona, Easter was able to dig deep into uncovering the issues and problems which arose within each collaborative player.
While some organizations interpreted the mission of ending homelessness as literally removing people sleeping on the street, others understood the mission in a broader sense, like understanding the concept of minimum wage and potential policy changes as a whole.
Easter said this caused some serious lack of communication and understanding of the overall plan.
“I would say that some of the main issues were that some organizations felt like they were on the same page and they weren’t,” Easter said. “I repeatedly heard among the players the phrase ‘we are a partnership to end homelessness,’ and everybody commonly used that language. And as I talked to the different players, I found that many of the them had very different ideas of what homelessness meant.”
“And because they didn’t make that explicit in terms of what they meant by homelessness, even though they did have the basic underlying understandings, people would always try to have different meetings and push their agenda by what they wanted to do about it. So, the topic about what we meant by ending homelessness was fluid – it was always moving. As opposed to everyone being clear about what they actually meant.”
The lack of concrete identity found within the coalition caused the entire effort to slow down and therefore not gain enough progress. Because of this, Easter took her findings and recommended that the coalition have an explicit mission statement and identity – something she hopes future coalition advisers will take up when adding new organizations to an existing coalition or creating a new coalition entirely.
Although Easter understood the administrative tensions that arose because of the lack of a focal identity for the coalition, Easter firmly believes various organizations can work together toward a common goal like ending homelessness if they are willing to put forth the effort and set aside their missional differences.
“I really believe strongly that it takes a lot of different organizations and individuals with different skill sets, working together in order to fix significant issues like homelessness,” Easter said. “I saw that growing up in church where churches would work with other churches and local government working with business in order to try and solve issues. I was generally interested in how the government realm, business realm and non-profit realm and how they work together in what I what call a ‘cross-sector’ partnership.”
Piling information on top of information, it is evident Easter knows what she’s talking about. From teaching Strategic Management to Business and Sustainability, Easter is eager to share her love for cultural research in the sustainability realm with her students.
After having several findings on both the partnership and individual levels and combining the necessary literature, academic theories and qualitative data into a 300-page dissertation, Easter said she hopes this example can inspire her students to understand the importance of the big picture.
“Especially when we’re talking about sustainability for a company, I want students to know that there are a lot of opportunities for businesses to be an active player in trying to solve societal issues, but there’s also a lot of challenges,” Easter said. “And I think this project really highlights those opportunities of bringing together these diverse players – and you really need them – but it’s really complex and really challenging. And we need to be thinking about both at all times. We need to look at the whole picture when it comes to fixing an issue.”
With hopes to publish her paper in a journal soon, Easter is excited to continue her passion for cross cultural research and is eager to see where else her path may take her.