Bridgespan Group Research Surfaces New Insights into How Philanthropic Collaborations Succeed and Why They Fail

07/10/2019 |


First-of-its-kind analysis draws from survey of 95 funders, 330 grantees, and deep research on practices that lead to collaborative funding success.

BOSTON, July 10, 2019 — The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, today published an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review based on an in-depth research report titled, “How Philanthropic Collaborations Succeed, and Why They Fail.” The article offers a first-of-its-kind analysis of funders’ and grantees’ satisfaction with specific funder collaboratives and explores practices and structures that are associated with successful collaboratives.

The scale of investment and number of independent funder collaboratives have accelerated dramatically in recent years. For example, the number of aggregated giving funds—one type of funder collaborative—has grown from just over 10 before 2000 to over 40 in 2019. Major funds like Blue Meridian Partners, Co-Impact, and the END Fund have sprung up in the last few years alone, each with the goal of aggregating tens—or hundreds—of millions of dollars. Given this surge, funders increasingly want to know what makes a collaborative successful.

“In recent years, funders have shown an immense amount of interest in working together in collaboratives, and they have high expectations for potential impact,” said Fay Twersky, Director of Effective Philanthropy at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Chair of the Research Steering Committee. “This research shows that having a clear alignment among funders about the collaborative’s goals and investment thesis, along with effective staffing, are critical ingredients for these new funder collaboratives to live up to high expectations.”

This research project was guided by a steering committee chaired by Twersky that also included: Allison Harvey Turner, Environment Program Director for the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; Betsy Krebs, Vice President of Poverty at the JPB Foundation; Leonardo Lacerda, Environment Program Director at the Oak Foundation; Kathy Reich, Director of Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) at the Ford Foundation; Darcy Riddell, Director of Strategic Learning at the McConnell Foundation;  Susan Bell, Principal of Susan Bell & Associates; Julia Coffman, Founder and Director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation; and Stephanie Gillis, Senior Advisor of Impact Driven Philanthropy Initiative for the Raikes Foundation. Funding for the research was provided by the Hewlett, Bechtel, JPB, McConnell, Oak, and Ford Foundations.

“There were important knowledge gaps in the existing research, particularly around whether and how funders should pursue collaborative action,” said Alison Powell, senior director for philanthropy at Bridgespan and co-author of the paper. “Since each collaborative is singular, there are no control groups for comparison purposes. Additionally, the extensive variation across collaboratives makes it hard to distill common success factors and pitfalls.”

To help address these gaps, Bridgespan conducted a rigorous study of 10 relatively successful collaboratives as well as a set of 15 that had faltered or failed. Bridgespan’s research included qualitative and quantitative analysis from more than 65 in-depth interviews as well as survey responses from 95 funders and 330 grantees from the 10 stronger collaboratives.

 Key findings included:

  • Collaborations can deliver results. Funders and grantees from the 10 stronger collaboratives reported high satisfaction with their impact 94 percent of the funders who responded to Bridgespan’s survey agreed that their collaborative was an overall success, and 93 percent agreed they are on track to reach the collaborative’s goals. 92 percent of the funders and 80 percent of the grantees said that their collaborative’s benefits exceed the costs of participating.
  • Some grantees can experience challenges, even when working with strong collaboratives: While the majority of the 330 grantees who received funding from one or more of the 10 stronger collaboratives reported positive perceptions of these collaboratives, the levels of grantees’ reported satisfaction varied much more than those of the funders. This variation suggests that some grantees who are funded through strong collaboratives experience challenges with collaboratives, such as managing funder relationships and managing risks associated with heightened funder power dynamics.
  • Behind strong collaboratives are clear investment theses: While there is no standard recipe for success, Bridgespan’s research revealed that the 10 stronger collaboratives all have a clear primary investment thesis for how the collaborative will achieve impact, what types of goals it will pursue, and how it will create value for its funders and grantees. While many collaboratives we studied had elements of different investment theses, the successful collaboratives prioritized one thesis.

Susan Wolf Ditkoff, partner at Bridgespan, added, “Our research left us optimistic that funder collaboratives can yield real value in the right circumstances. In order to create these circumstances, we encourage collaboratives to ensure that they always have clear answers to four questions: What is your primary investment thesis? How do you want to work with funders and grantees? How do you know if you are delivering value? And are you effectively engaging stakeholders and communities where you’re seeking to have impact?” 

Hilary Pennington, Executive Vice President for Program at the Ford Foundation commented, “This research unearths crucial new information about how funder collaboratives can be more effective. From this study it is clear that we can take steps to improve the grantee experience and help them become stronger organizations in their own right."

Julia Coffman observed, "This research shows how important it is for funder collaboratives to invest in evaluation from the start. Not only to check on progress toward goals, but also to gather feedback on how they are affecting grantees and the broader field.”

Bridgespan’s paper, which includes a detailed overview of the survey findings and the accompanying literature review of existing research, can be read at



About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, philanthropists and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With offices in Boston, Mumbai, New York, and San Francisco, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.

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