January 15, 2016

How Philanthropists Can Collaborate for Better Results

If you're a philanthropist who hopes to tackle society's most pressing problems, collaboration is essential to success. To that end, here's how to create effective partnerships that create impact.

If you're a philanthropist who hopes to tackle society's most pressing problems, collaboration is essential to success. "Even the largest philanthropists today are too small in relationship to the really serious problems that we have in the world," says Nancy Roob of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. This is especially true in an era when government support for nonprofits is shrinking while demand for nonprofits is on the rise. Mario Marino, Chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners, agrees that collaboration is essential, but emphasizes the difficulty of doing it effectively. "We love to talk about collective impact," he says, but "we totally underestimate it, we underfund it, we don't appreciate it, and we don't set up incentives to drive it properly." Indeed, both aspects of collaboration—its critical importance to effective philanthropy as well as its difficulty—deserve attention.

Collaboration offers a number of benefits over flying solo, such as more money for causes that require big investments, cost efficiencies, access to networks, and the synergistic force of different sectors working together to make true headway.

The rarity of philanthropic collaboration

Collaboration offers a number of benefits over flying solo, such as more money for causes that require big investments; cost efficiencies due to shared strategy development or due diligence on potential grantees; access to networks and specialized skills that an individual donor may not have on staff; and the synergistic force of different sectors—such as philanthropy, nonprofits, government, and business—working together to make true headway on issues like education reform.

Yet despite the myriad ways that collaboration can benefit society, such teamwork is rare, according to Bridgespan's article High Stakes Donor Collaborations. For example, few donors have advanced beyond information sharing and grant coordination. In fact, it's unusual for donors to form joint endeavors that pool money, time, and talent to advance a shared vision with multiyear goals, largely because collaborative efforts include realities that may be difficult for many philanthropists to accept. By its very nature, donor collaboration places results ahead of recognition for an organization or individual, and it involves large commitments of time and money, a loss of unilateral decision-making control, and the possibility that everyone taking part could lose prestige if the project doesn't work out.

Benefits of collaboration, keys to its success

The article, which discusses pioneering philanthropists who have pooled talent and resources to tackle large-scale social problems, focuses on three important benefits to collaboration. First, donors can gain expertise by learning from partners with established reputations in a specialized field, or by joining with others to develop collective expertise together. Second, philanthropists are more likely to effect widespread change in complex areas such as education or government by working together. Third, collaboration allows for donors to pool resources. For example, rather than donors being constricted to just their own resources, they can pool large sums of money to fund activities in multiple locations over an extended period of time. Case in point: The Donors' Education Collaborative, initiated by five foundation presidents in 1995, banded together to rectify the deteriorating quality of New York City schools. The organization's $14 million in grants (the amount noted at the time of the article's publication) have made impressive progress, including helping to frame the discussion about education reform in the city, just the kind of systemic impact the collaborative aspired to create, say supporters.

Of course, such collaboration is not easy to create. Keys to success include:

  • forging good personal relationships;
  • ensuring that key leaders with the right authority come together to set the collaboration in motion;
  • creating a clear structure and process;
  • adapting to lessons learned, changing circumstances, and expectations
  • embracing risk; and
  • planning an exit strategy.

Working together, going farther

Many of the philanthropists Bridgespan interviewed for the Conversations with Remarkable Givers Video Series attest to the importance of collaboration for getting results in philanthropy and describe successes that resulted from teaming up with others to accomplish shared goals. A few examples: The development of the 911 emergency services system, the public recognition and awareness of autism, a childhood pneumonia vaccine, and a program to send young Jewish adults to Israel. In partnership with other donors some of our interviewees pool funds to finance "big bets" on organizations or initiatives beyond their individual reach and combine expertise to work across increasingly complex domains more effectively. Because such donor-to-donor collaboration can lead to sharing strategies as well as sharing research into potential grantees, the result is often more efficient grantmaking.

Such examples illustrate the fruits of collaboration and point to how many of the most effective philanthropists find that collaborating with others—whether with other donors, grantees, beneficiaries, or government—is a key component of effective philanthropy. "If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together," says philanthropist and CEO of Revolution and Startup America Partnership Steve Case, quoting an African proverb. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker also supports this sentiment and points out it may require a change in mindset. "The key to your success will not be your ability to stand alone and distinguish yourself, but [will be] your ability to work with others, your ability to co-create those strategies that will get you solutions," he says. "It requires you to think about ownership of something not as being simply yours but as a public good and that what you're trying to do is bring more investors into this public good." It's a principle that holds true for even the largest private foundation in the world. Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Melinda Gates points out that early on the Gates Foundation leaders realized they would need to partner with others. Since then, she says, "the level of collaboration has grown exponentially."

The resources included in our Collaborating with Other Philanthropists section offer guidance on when you should consider collaborating with other philanthropists, how to maximize the results of collaboration, and share examples of how other donors managed this tricky process to great benefit.

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