Funder Collaboration: Can Philanthropy Really Join Hands and Sing in Harmony?



Funder collaboration is anything but new in the world of philanthropy. But as more funders strive to make change on a larger scale, on increasingly complex social problems, they’re beginning to realize more and more that no single funder can go it alone.

Nearly three-quarters of the foundations surveyed in a forthcoming study from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) said that they have actively developed strategic relationships with other grantmakers in the past two years. Nine out of ten said they did so to achieve greater impact.

“We’re seeing that complex problems require equally complex solutions,” said Jessica Wechter, senior program specialist at GEO. And complex solutions include funders joining forces. No one single organization will have the expertise or resources to tackle every facet of every challenge, Wechter said.

And though this kind of thinking isn’t new, it’s beginning to gain a new level of acceptance, Wechter added.

Collaboration comes in many forms: from pooled funding to strategic alignment and everywhere in between. And each kind of collaboration differs in a variety of ways, according to the Bridgespan Group, “whether it is the flow of funds, decision-making, expectations and roles of funding partners, or legal structure.”

Some collaborations are fluid and change in nature over time to allow funders to participate in different ways, depending on their own strategies. Other collaborations are intensive in both time and money and require “shared multiyear efforts around which donors pool talent, resources, and decision-making,” according to Bridgespan.

Whatever the form, funder collaboration is essential in realizing "the kind of social impact that we all aspire to,” said Larry McGill, senior vice president of research at the Foundation Center. And easy access to good data plays a critical role in effective collaborations.

“If you have increasingly good data about the social issues that people are working on … the organizations that are trying to intervene, the strategies they are employing, and the successes and failures they are experiencing … all this means that you can build on the work that others are doing and find your place in the context of all that is being done. In practice, philanthropy should be able to collaborate a lot more meaningfully,” McGill said.

As foundations and other funders already know, collaboration is not all about holding hands and singing songs. Collaborating is hard, and doesn’t necessarily come naturally for foundations that may pride themselves on their independence. “Despite widespread acknowledgment of its value, I’ve been surprised by how difficult it can be to form fruitful collaborations with other funders,” wrote Larry Kramer, president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Collaboration is difficult, but not impossible if funders enter into joint efforts with realistic expectations of the challenges involved, and what it takes to make collaboration work. (Find more in-depth guidance in Bridgespan’s Lessons in Funder Collaboration report.)

It takes time: Time is in short supply for many grantmaking professionals. “For a program officer whose plate is already full, there isn’t much incentive to get out there, build relationships, and grab a seat at the table and become a supportive player,” Wechter said. “We want to take our dollars and jump into the work right away and see it do good, but you really have to build the relationships and trust and get to know each other as partners before you act,” Wechter said. This takes time. “Foundations need to invest in building those relationships long term.”

It takes patience and humility: Foundations are used to leading. “Sometimes in collaboration you have to say, I’m going to give up some autonomy and put my trust and dollars and expertise into a collective that is bigger than myself. And that is very hard,” Wechter said. Organizational interest, ego, and agenda can all get in the way of mission, Wechter said. The question becomes, “how can we invest in shared goals without expecting direct institutional gain from it?”

It takes relationship building: The most successful collaborations build very strong relationships among collaborators, said Judy Huang, a manager at Bridgepsan’s San Francisco office and co-author of the report, Lessons in Funder Collaboration. “Where we saw greater candor [among foundations surveyed], and stronger conversations about the collaboration, we saw the greatest success,” she said.

It takes clear vision and alignment in goal setting: It’s critical that funders make sure that all of the different players share a common vision, Huang said. Goals should be clearly defined and aligned ahead of time. It’s also important to clearly state which roles each constituent will play. “If you don’t start there, its unlikely to be a highly productive relationship,” Huang added.

These challenges aren’t insurmountable and clearly collaboration works – from Open Society Foundations, Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and others collaborating to improve the lives of black men and boys, to the countless smaller foundations who collaborate every day with other funders, nonprofits, and federal and state government to chip away at the issues they care about.

Take the Butler Family Fund in Washington, D.C. By primarily supporting advocacy and policy work, Butler works to prevent and end homelessness and end extreme sentencing like juvenile life without parole and the death penalty. And by collaborating with like-minded funders and other stakeholders, Butler has been able to leverage relatively limited resources to create an outsized impact.

Since 2007, when the Butler Family Fund, Atlantic Philanthropies, Fund for Nonviolence, Open Society Foundations, and Sheilah's Fund at Tides formally joined forces, six states have repealed the death penalty. In five of the six cases, collaborative funding had a direct impact on the campaign, according to Martha Toll, the executive director at Butler. “We were one of the smallest funders involved, we would never take credit. But it needed joint funding to make it happen,” Toll said.

“Our grant amounts are relatively small compared to our colleagues in this work,” Toll continued, “so for sure together we are greater than the sum of our parts.” But it’s not only about money. “It’s about sharing strategy and sharing intelligence and not working in silos,” she said.

Butler and Toll fully embrace collaboration, though the work can look different in different subject areas.

As part of Butler’s homelessness work, the foundation has focused on employment as a solution to prevent homelessness. Their work in this area garnered the attention of the Department of Labor. The Secretary of Labor is also the Chair of the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Butler is now cosponsoring a summit with the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Interagency Council on Homelessness to work with communities to identify key activities the Department of Labor can undertake to improve access to training and jobs for those experiencing homelessness.

In this case Butler’s collaboration doesn’t end with philanthropy. Instead, they are collaborating with three federal departments.

“This is very significant for us, we are a very small foundation,” she added. “This is an extraordinary ripple effect that has come from our funding.”

Whatever the brand of collaboration a funder embarks upon, it’s critical to recognize that collaboration is a means to an end, said Huang of Bridgepsan. No foundations should participate in a collaboration simply for collaboration’s sake.

“It all goes back to the impact the funders are seeking. If the ambition or impact they seek is greater than their current capacity enables, then collaboration is a way to get there,” Huang said.

What’s more, funders have asked their grantees to be more collaborative for years, Wechter of GEO said. “It’s good for foundations to practice what they preach.”

Written by Aaron Lester