Collaborative Giving

If your philanthropic vision involves truly moving the needle on a big issue, it’s worth exploring the possibility of bringing others along with you on the journey. This guide will walk you through the why, how, who, when and what of collaborative giving.

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Introduction

“No private funder alone, not even Bill Gates, has the resources and reach to move the needle on our most pressing and intractable problems.”
—Monitor Institute

As the landscape of philanthropy continues to expand and evolve, it’s become more and more clear that the future of systemic change—using giving to find solutions that address the underlying causes of social, economic and environmental problems—requires not only larger pools of funding, but more combined willpower and expertise. If your philanthropic vision involves truly moving the needle on a big issue, it’s worth exploring the possibility of bringing others along with you on the journey.

Benefits

Why give collaboratively?

There are a number of benefits giving collaboratively can have, both for funders and for grantees. Here are some of the reasons why you may want to consider dedicating a portion of your philanthropic dollars to collaborative giving efforts.

Learning opportunity for donors

If you’re a newer player in philanthropy, becoming part of a collaborative can provide access to wisdom and experience that will help inform your future giving strategies and practices. And even experienced donors can tap into the skillsets and expertise of their peers.

Risk management

With access to the wisdom of other donors, a wider network of advisors, and other shared resources, collaboration can mitigate the risks of striking out on your own or duplicating efforts while you may still be learning about a specific sector or cause.

Increased impact

When you can pool funds for longer-term or larger gifts, you free your grantees from excessive reporting duties; you also give them the security of knowing that their big visions are supported by a more substantial flow of capital, helping them grow their initiatives without the uncertainty of consistently applying for smaller, shorter-term funding.

Necessary processes for decision-making

The interaction with others when giving collaboratively is a catalyst for thoughtful decision-making. When you’re acting alone, it’s easier to give without an overall strategy or rubric for decision-making; working with others to define a process can help create the satisfaction of an integrated giving strategy that aligns with your personal values, as well as those of the group.

Questions & Considerations

Questions and Considerations for Collaborators

Collaboration is complex, and it usually requires more time and energy from those involved than going it alone. However, when done thoughtfully, the positive effects can exponentially outweigh the costs. Before you begin, it’s important to find alignment with your potential partners on a series of questions.

Before you begin discussions with possible collaborators, we recommend spending some time working through a series of individual questions related to your motivations and expectations for your personal philanthropic vision. These questions are contained in our Philanthropy Roadmap guide.

Impact

Why are we giving? What impact do we want to create?

In collaborative philanthropy, the first—and most important—point of alignment is the why: why are you coming together to give? What are you trying to achieve as partners?

In traditional, project-based philanthropy, donors are happy to provide funding in order to move a specific effort ahead in a defined way. And that kind of giving is still important. However, if you want to help a grantee scale their operations, catalyze ripple effects, potentially generate exponential impact, or create a more effective allocation of funds across an entire sector, you’ll want to collaborate with others who share your goals.

Example: Oceans 5 narrowly defined two priorities, based on science and opportunity, in order to create tangible change in the world’s oceans. The group focuses on stopping overfishing and establishing marine reserves. This helps guide their grant-making and supports their commitment to measurable results. To learn more, read our Oceans 5 case study below. 

Approach

How will we achieve the impact we’ve identified?

Once you’re aligned on your shared why, it’s time to tackle the how. Because collaboration can entail such a wide range of action and effect, it’s crucial to think about how you’ll reach your stated goals. Will you pool your funds in order to give larger grants that require less reporting and ongoing efforts from your grantees? Will you intentionally learn from your partners in order to make the best possible grantmaking decisions? Do you want to leave a collective mark on a particular sector in order to change the game for the organizations inside it? Do you want to create a new example of how collaboration can function?

Example: In service of their two main impact goals, Oceans 5 makes direct grants, provides in-kind services, and offers strategic support to their grantees. Members of the collective are also involved in similar efforts for ocean conservation, including the Plastics Solutions Fund and the Global Partnership for Sharks.

Remember that the details of your collaboration can be as unique as the people and organizations within it. Even if you’re tackling different areas within a large issue, or not working directly together, you can still create collective change. Sharing knowledge, due diligence, and impact reports – both positive and negative – can help each of you become more effective and informed.

What is each partner willing and expected to invest—not just in funds, but in time and effort?

Because every collaboration is as unique as the people and organizations within it, it’s worth taking the time to consider the tactical questions about how you’ll support your chosen causes. How will you meet and communicate? Will each of you have the same role within your group, or will you each be responsible for different parts of the work? Do you want to be a group of hands-on donors, or will you step back and let your grantees take charge after your funds are disbursed? Beyond the money you’re committing, what kinds of connections might you bring to the table? How can you leverage other resources in your networks? All of these assets – time, effort, social capital – can strengthen a collaboration, so it’s important to work through expectations about how you’ll bring them to bear.

Example: Oceans 5 has two forms of membership: Partners and Members. Partners donate $1 million a year to the collaborative’s overall efforts, taking a seat on the Board of Directors. Members provide significant project-based support of at least $100,000 a year and do not have a governance role, though they participate in Board meetings and decision processes.

Timeline

How soon do we need to see our desired results?

Depending on the “why” and the “how” you define for yourselves, the scale of your goals may be audacious—and rightfully so. Realistically, how long will it take to reach the milestones that define success? Are you all prepared to actively participate until then? And if a partner does need to step down from your partnership, how will you handle it?

Some collaborations are specifically time-bound. A group may decide to collaborate for five or ten years and then disband. This strategy may require the collaborative to focus on grants that can have a more immediate, noticeable impact or achieve a specific goal like building a school or launching a sustainable program.

Example: Oceans 5 projects are generally defined with 3-year objectives, inclusive of shorter-term milestones. Most Oceans 5 outcomes involve changes to public policy. All projects are defined by specific objectives that are easily evaluated.  

Focus Area

Why are we the right team for our shared area of focus?

In the best collaborations, each partner contributes something unique and valuable to a shared vision. What’s bringing you together, and what makes you the right partners to create the change you seek?

Some philanthropic efforts find success because they’re sector-specific. They pull in collaborators who truly understand the space, and are prepared to meet its particular challenges. Recall the story of the END Fund, which brings together global stakeholders across industries in order to tackle the thorny problem of neglected tropical diseases: the key to this initiative’s success comes from a deep knowledge of the interplay between different actors and conditions in the field.

By the same token, some of the strongest collaborations happen through shared geography. Funders share a deep knowledge of the issues that affect the places where they live and work, and their efforts benefit from that experience.

Necessity

Do we need to collaborate in order to reach our goals?

Once you’ve talked through the questions above, it’s a good idea to check in and make sure that collaboration is the best way forward. As we’ve discussed, working together has its pluses and minuses.

Quote

Collaboration is a priority, but we need to be selective about why and when it has impact. Sometimes, there is strength in numbers, but there are also times when it is better to be on your own . . . You can take risks [acting alone] you cannot always take as a collective. - Meera Mani, Packard Foundation

Spectrum of Collaboration

Spectrum of Collaboration

Collaboration can invoke a wide range of interactions between like-minded funders. At the most basic level, a simple exchange of knowledge can be transformational, especially from more experienced parties to those with a shorter track record. At the more complex end, funder collectives come together not only to share their know-how, but also their networks, resources, and decision-making acumen.

The division between casual knowledge sharing and true strategic collaboration is a sharp one, though, and connotes a major difference in both potential impact and potential tradeoffs. The Bridgespan Group has identified those more complex collaborative efforts—those which meet the criteria of “a shared multiyear vision around which donors pool talent, resources, and decision making”—as “high stakes donor collaboration.” In these arrangements, the stakes are high; with combined resources, the positive change effected can far outpace anything individual donors can do alone. But, if funders aren’t aware of the potential pitfalls of working together in a philanthropic space, they stand to lose a lot of time, money, and effort. They also bear the risk that their reputation may suffer if the project goes south, just as they may gain credence if it succeeds wildly: high risk, high reward.

A key point of tension for collaboration occurs in decision making processes. In RPA’s work on the Scalable Solutions Initiative with the Skoll, Porticus, Draper Richards Kaplan, and Ford Foundations, we have seen how collaborations require individual funders to cede some decision rights. This takes trust. And while staff members at the Director or Program Officer level may be willing to compromise on their foundation’s proposal or reporting requirements, for example, there isn’t always alignment at a foundation’s Executive Director or Board level. This presents an opportunity for further discussion and improved practice in the philanthropy sector.

Bridgespan points out three main reasons that funders take part in high stakes donor collaborations: accessing the expertise of the other collaborators, creating enough clout to change systems, and pooling enough capital to take a project to the next level. Alongside these involved models of collaboration, it’s also possible to work together in more informal, autonomous ways.

Range of Collaboration

The diagram below illustrates one way to think about the possibilities of collaboration, ranging from least to most integrated. The points of collaboration here are meant to illustrate a spectrum of involvement, and more than one kind of interaction can take place within a certain group of funders.

Within that spectrum, many different structures for collaborative giving emerge.

 

Aggregators

Aggregators are organizations that collect funding on behalf of a number of donors – usually larger groups of donors who contribute relatively small amounts of capital – and use their resources to deploy those funds in the service of shared goals. The aggregator uses its expertise to identify worthy projects for either grant or loan funding and creates the systems through which donors can give directly to those projects.

Individual donor giving circles

Individual giving circles offer a low-stakes way for donors to experience the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal without the overly formal processes of more integrated collaboration. Members identify shared goals, pool funds in order to give larger grants to causes they feel strongly about, and often share information and encourage related action in pursuit of policy change.

Particularly in emerging markets, where philanthropic practices may not be as defined, individual giving circles offer a way for groups of funders to pool their resources in a more informal way. Recall, from the earlier section about collaborative focus area, that giving circles often echo cultural practices of local philanthropy, continuing legacies of community care.

Public-Private Partnerships

Often, philanthropic funders who wish to bring their ideas to scale can find the most potential in joining forces with governments. The Initiative for Smallholder Finance, for example, pairs institutional funders like the Skoll Foundation and the Citi Foundation with USAID, the United States’ lead agency for ending global poverty. ISF is a systems-level platform for rural inclusion in the financial services sector, serving smallholder farmers in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Leveraging the resources and knowledge of both the private and public sectors, the organization focuses on moving capital from financial service providers to farmers at the base of the pyramid. As the market grows, ISF is working to provide platforms for specific industries, as well as research to support its stakeholders’ success. ISF does occasionally refer to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, another example of a hallmark public-private partnership.

Avoiding Pitfalls

How to avoid the common pitfalls of collaboration

If solving problems together were easy, everyone with a big vision would be doing it. It’s important to understand the challenges of working with others toward a big philanthropic endgame; failing to prepare for these challenges has sunk many a promising collaboration.

Establish governance procedures early on

How will we make decisions?

Collaboration requires compromise. This can stop it from happening before it begins, especially for donors who are used to fully dictating how every dollar is spent. You can work together to structure decision making processes and governance, but each person in the group is going to have to cede control at some point—either to the collective as a whole, or to another person within it.

Just as too many cooks in the kitchen can complicate dinner preparation, the nature of philanthropy can create a situation in which a group of strong leaders vie for the driver’s seat. Because many philanthropists have spent the majority of their careers cultivating certain qualities – visionary thinking, assertiveness, leadership—it can be difficult to step aside when necessary and cede control to others. In order to anticipate these moments, it’s crucial for each collaborative to clarify their decision making processes at the outset.

It’s also important to consider the decision-making led by potential counterparts – for example, if the collaborative sets up a foundation, the selection of program and executive leadership is a crucial task. Agreeing on priorities in these individual hires is a key point of convergence, as is identifying the processes that will guide their work alongside yours.

Example: In Oceans 5’s case, Program Director Chuck Fox wears multiple hats at all times; he serves the donors as well as their grantees, drawing on his extensive marine conservation experience to offer insight and wisdom on the possibilities for impact that donors must evaluate.

Define and agree on shared values

As you explore funding possibilities together, what’s your North Star? What are your non-negotiables? What will help guide you when decisions are difficult, or opportunities seem unclear? Making the time to talk through these questions – and codify them – will make your partnership much easier when the way forward isn’t clear.

Find alignment on impact measurements

Once you know the impact you’re seeking to create, define the tangible milestones that will define success for you. What targets will you set along the way? When do you intend to reach them?

It’s also important to collectively reevaluate your impact measurements, as well as the effect your practices have on your stakeholders. Periodically inviting feedback can confirm the ways in which your collaboration is thriving; it can also reveal areas for improvement that can take your efforts to the next level.

Example: Oceans 5 performed a “look-back” after five years of operating, checking in with the collaborative’s partners in order to understand their reactions to the group’s work and make further decisions from there. The Board engaged a consulting firm to interview internal and external stakeholders about grantmaking, management, and communications. This gave Oceans 5 a formal opportunity to uncover new insight. Specifically, the look-back confirmed cohesion around the importance of working with other organizations that share Oceans 5’s goals, revealed grant areas that could potentially shift due to the entrance of new interested funders in the space, and highlighted a commitment to making grants in underserved geographical areas. The conversations also resulted in a number of key considerations for organizational advancement, including a revamped communications strategy and further board conversations about planning for growth.

This kind of retrospective evaluation is crucial to maintain effectiveness in an evolving group of philanthropists – as the composition of the group shifts, and as members themselves may evolve in their philanthropic vision, the function of the collective may recalibrate in natural ways as well.

Decide how you will bring on new partners, and when

As you plan the structure and operation of your collaboration, how will you bring in new players? Finding other funders with similar goals may be easier than finding those who are also good fit for the governance and impact measurements you’ve agreed to.

Example: It can be helpful to create a process that helps introduce new people to your work in an informative way. Oceans 5’s open board meetings create a space for potential partners to see firsthand how decisions are made, giving them insight into whether they’d be an ideal part of the group.

Agree on a time horizon that makes sense for your members, in light of your goals

In addition to talking through expected timeframes for each partner’s participation, it’s also important to decide how long your collaboration will last. Is your goal to provide measurable improvements in a specific impact area over the next five years, for example? Do you want to spend three years on a particular proof of concept for a new approach to grantmaking? Do you have a plan for 20 years of funding? Considering your goals alongside the capacity of the partners involved, you can identify the right timeline for your efforts.

Decide who gets credit, and how

Is it important that each member gets an agreed-upon level or type of credit for the success of the group, even though members may provide various resources at different levels? Does anyone want or need to remain anonymous? Is there a natural spokesperson among the collaborators? Deciding how you’ll speak for yourselves, and how you’ll gracefully accept whatever success you might achieve, is important.

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

The questions and considerations we’ve put forward are important for anyone who wants to create real systems change in an impact area, or to innovate within the structures of philanthropy itself. It’s important to continue these practices of inquiry and alignment throughout the life of your partnership. When you make the decision to collaborate, you’re creating a long-term relationship with other people in the service of a shared vision that none of you could realize on your own; as in any relationship, recommitting to shared values, and dealing with difficulties based on those values, is crucial to your success.

Example: Oceans 5’s tangible success has piqued the interest of others in the philanthropic community. The collective’s membership and grantmaking capacity has grown quite a bit – they could technically be called Oceans 12 now! – and the group is continually holding deep conversations about process and intent.