While there is no set formula for how to collaborate effectively, being aware of these key needs will position you to make the most of collaborative efforts.
Last month, we had the opportunity to attend Strategic Co-Funding: A Grantmaker Convening, hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO)—a full day dedicated to connecting with funders and learning from one another’s experiences with donor collaboration. The convening exceeded our expectations because it didn’t simply cover questions of why and when donors should collaborate, but also focused the philanthropic community’s attention exactly where we think it needs to be: on how to collaborate more effectively, for maximum impact. In short, on how to do it right.
Several of the key lessons and best practices voiced at the convening are ones that we at Arabella have also learned and grappled with firsthand when providing strategic guidance, facilitation, and operational support services to a range of donor collaboratives in recent years. Here are five takeaways that resonated with our own experiences:
1. Take time to build trust. Successful co-funding initiatives are built upon honest dialogue, healthy compromise, and a willingness to contribute. Investing time and effort early on to build trust and open lines of communication among participating donors yields great benefits over the life of the collaboration.
2. Don’t lose sight of home base. Co-funding efforts, especially pooled funds, provide a unique opportunity for donors to participate in grant making separate from their home institutions. However, successful collaborations keep in mind the range of issues “back home” that can impact them. For example, collaboratives often need to devise ways to keep their members’ respective boards easily apprised of activities, make arrangements to align collaborative grant cycles with member institutions’ funding schedules, and coordinate activities in a way that ensures the full support of each donor’s home institution.
3. Find a structure that works. Given that each funder enters a collaborative with different aspirations, restrictions, and funding capabilities, finding an optimal decision-making structure can be challenging. To ease tension and increase efficiencies down the road, funders should decide up-front on a governance structure and decision-making process for their co-funding effort, and define the parameters for participation, be they set contribution levels or other forms of commitment. While the structures will vary based on the specific needs of each collaborative, having these difficult conversations early on makes a difference.
4. Implement for success. Co-funding initiatives often underestimate the amount of time and resources it takes to facilitate efficient decision making, provide logistical support, keep participants connected, and deploy grants. A smart staffing and operations plan that aligns with the collaborative’s broader goals and strategy is key to successful implementation.
5. Prepare to evolve. While great effort goes into developing a collaborative strategy, governance structure, and operations plan, it is important for donors to recognize that all co-funding efforts evolve over time. Raising questions early on, such as how a co-funding effort will manage growth, navigate shifting priorities, and respond to developments in the field can prove immensely helpful. It is also beneficial to make time, on an ongoing basis, to take the pulse of the collaborative and adjust course as needed.
While there is no set formula for how to collaborate effectively, being aware of such key issues will continue to move the field forward and make our collaborations more effective. So too will having more chances—like those convenings and networks such as GEO provide—to learn from other funders’ experiences. We look forward to being a part of these conversations and sharing our expertise on what works—and what doesn’t. Keep an eye out for more on donor collaboratives on this blog, and join the discussion in the comments below.
Katrina Briddell is an associate director at Arabella, where she manages a diverse portfolio of health, education, and environment projects for the Managed Organizations team.
Lauren Marra is an associate director of consulting. She provides strategy, evaluation, and project implementation guidance to the firm’s individual, family, and institutional clients.