Philanthropy and Collaboration: Where Do We Stand Now?


philanthropy collaboration

Collaboration has been an important idea in philanthropy for some time – in 2014 it became one of the sector’s most talked about issues of the year.

As funders strive to make change on a larger scale, on increasingly complex social problems, they realize more and more that they can’t go it alone. Now that 2015 is upon us, the question arises: How far has collaboration in philanthropy come?

The results are mixed, according to Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). Though grantmakers (overwhelmingly) report being interested in supporting collaboration to achieve more impact, as of the close of 2014 they haven’t consistently funded the costs associated with this kind of collaboration.

In some ways this is understandable: Collaboration is expensive, time consuming, and doesn’t produce immediate wins. But taking the long view, philanthropy can’t afford not to collaborate – among other funders and with grantees.

Enright and her coauthors narrowed their focus on collaboration to three areas in GEO’s 2014 report, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?:

  • Funding nonprofit collaboration

  • Collaborating with one another

  • Creating an enabling environment that supports collaboration

Funding collaboration

The good news: Multiyear support has rebounded to pre-recession levels and general operating support increased from 20 percent to 25 percent as a share of total grantmaking dollars, according to the report.

The not-so-good news: “The 2014 findings suggest that grantmakers are now less likely than in 2011 to fund the costs of collaboration or managing strategic relationships among grantees,” wrote Enright. In 2011, 38 percent of foundations reported never or rarely funding the costs of collaboration and in 2014 the news for collaboration got even worse. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they “never or rarely provide this kind of support.”

But I thought collaboration was one of the hottest ideas of 2014? What’s going on? Maybe foundations expect their increased general operating support to be used for collaboration, or maybe they feel that with a rebounding economy, collaboration is less essential than it was in years past.

Whatever the cause, writes Enright, “if funders expect their grantees to collaborate, they have to be willing to underwrite the costs of doing so. Otherwise it’s an unfunded mandate that is unlikely to succeed.”

Collaboration among funders

In 2011 and 2014, 69 percent of foundations reported collaborating with other grantmakers to learn from the expertise of other funders and to achieve greater impact, according to the GEO report. This is good news to be sure, but as Enright says, “this further highlights the divide between what grantmakers are willing to support for themselves and what they are willing to fund for their grantees.”

And though funders see the importance of understanding their progress toward achieving impact, they seem to be missing an opportunity to share what they find with other funders. While 76 percent of funders surveyed in the report evaluate their grantmaking successes and failures, less than half of those share these findings with other funders.

Creating an environment for collaboration

Sincerely reaching out and hearing what key stakeholders in the grantmaking process have to say is critical for incubating collaboration, and at last, Enright writes, the majority of foundations in the US are asking for grantee feedback. “Fully 92 percent of respondents indicated that it is important that staff build relationships with grantees so that grantees can be open about their challenges.” And 89 percent said that it’s important to provide opportunities for staff members to spend time outside the office with recipient communities or their grantees.

It’s clear that most everyone sees the value of collaboration in philanthropy. And there are strong efforts going on throughout the sector. It’s also clear that this work is challenging, and there are still opportunities left on the table.

The effort is summed up aptly by Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, as quoted in the report: “Bringing people together creates an incredible spirit of ‘let’s get something done.’ But getting something done requires resources. In addition to getting people to the table, we need to know that the product of the work will also be supported.” 

Written by Aaron Lester