Three Essentials for Accelerating Funder Collaboration

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

By Lisa Philp, Vice President for Strategic Philanthropy and
Director of GrantCraftFoundation Center

Funder collaboration. Like Mom and apple pie, it’s something we can all rally around. But anyone who has worked as a grantmaker knows that it’s harder than it sounds. We all work within different contexts and constraints. In a diverse and decentralized field, it’s hard to stay on top of who is doing what. We all have our own ideas about what strategies have the most impact and which groups are most worthy. And true collaboration is so much more than convincing others to support your initiatives.

From my former vantage point as a program officer for a variety of foundations and a donor advisor to ultra-high net worth individuals, I think it all begins with learning networks. Through regional associations like Philanthropy New York and affinity groups like Grantmakers for Children, Youth & Families, funders come together to build relationships of trust, compare notes, and discover co-funding opportunities. Dedicated donor advisors scan the field on behalf of their clients, connect the dots, and serve as vital bridges between “emerging” and “organized” philanthropy.

But to accelerate the pace of funder collaboration, our field needs “how-to” frameworks, case studies, and time-saving technology tools to foster, deepen, and connect these learning networks.

Frameworks: First, we need to define what we mean by collaboration. Several frameworks have been created to help grantmakers match collaborative approaches with needs. One typology—articulated in the Moving Ideas and Money report of the Funders’ Network—includes information exchange, co-learning, strategic alignment (informal and formal), pooled funds, and joint ventures. The framework included as part of a recent GrantCraft guide on Funder Collaboratives is meant to spark ideas, stimulate discussion, and suggest possibilities.

Case studies: When I was at the J.P. Morgan Private Bank, we created a pooled fund that raised over $5 million from individual donors and family foundations to leverage innovative models of public education reform supported by the U.S. Department of Education and national and local foundations. A detailed case study on this Education Collaboration Fund (ECF) was recently published by The Foundation Review. Case studies like this one illuminate the roles that can be played by donor advisors, provide a blueprint for replication, and offer up an honest assessment of opportunities and challenges.

Technology tools: Key to the success of the ECF was the creation of an online funder collaboration tool by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation Registry i3 provided a hub for nonprofits to post their applications and a password-protected area for funders to quickly and easily compare notes on proposals under consideration for matching funds.

In a related development, the Foundation Center is increasingly asked to mine its data on foundation giving, philanthropy news, and foundation-supported research to create technology tools to advance funder learning and collaboration. For example,—commissioned by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation on behalf of a group of foundations and corporations who fund global water access, sanitation, and hygiene issues—creates a dashboard for this network with interactive maps of their grants (featuring overlays of international aid), case studies, outcome tools, recommended readings, news streams, and social media.

Several other custom web portals are underway at the Foundation Center across an array of issues and geographies, but what unifies these projects is a desire to use technology to understand the state of funding in a field, allow for more coordination among current funders, and provide easy entry points for new donors. These online tools need to be “fed” with content—frameworks, case studies, and timely data streams—to provide time-saving approaches for learning networks to stay informed of the work of their peers and make the most of their face-to-face time together.

To work at scale in their communities and on their issues, funders must work through their networks to collaborate with other foundations, donors, government, the private sector, and nonprofits. Creative frameworks, case studies of successes and failures, and knowledge management tools can go a long way toward accelerating this process.

Lisa Philp is Vice President for Strategic Philanthropy and Director of GrantCraft at the Foundation Center. She previously served as Global Head of Philanthropic Services for the J.P. Morgan Private Bank, Program Officer for Youth Development and Education at The Robin Hood Foundation, and as Director of Communications and Government Relations at Philanthropy New York. She will also be speaking at two upcoming Philanthropy New York events: Changing the System on March 26th and GrantCraft is Back! on April 4th. Lisa earned a M.B.A. in Marketing and Nonprofit Management from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and received her B.A. in Asian Studies and Economics from the University of Michigan.

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