Three Ways to Maximize Impact Through Collaboration
The philanthropic field now largely recognizes the importance of collaboration, but few funders fully exploit this powerful tool. Here’s how three different forms of collaboration can amplify your impact.
Over the last 10 years, Arabella has helped funders across the nation and around the world collaborate with other funders, grantees, businesses, government agencies, and civic groups. We have seen the power of effective collaboration—and also confronted the barriers to it. Reflecting on that experience, a few lessons stand out. First, funders can benefit from working together even if they don’t have much time or money to invest in collaborative efforts and without taking big risks or sacrificing much decision-making power. Second, collaborative efforts are far more likely to succeed if and when they include 1) systematic alignment of clear and specific goals, 2) sound and fully articulated decision-making structures, and 3) frequent information sharing.
Below we review three cases in which we’ve seen funders go beyond grant making by collaborating with others—thereby amplifying their impact.
Collaborating to Learn Together
When it comes to society’s toughest problems, multiple stakeholders often work to address the same issue from multiple directions. By sharing ideas, information, and know-how with their peers and partners, funders can increase shared knowledge about an issue, spread and deepen understanding of a community’s needs, and augment each other’s work. Collaborating to learn together typically requires little financial investment and few if any shifts to funders’ individual strategies. And it doesn’t reduce funders’ autonomy or decision-making power. Its limitation, of course, is that increased understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to coordinated action and impact, though it does lay the groundwork for its pursuit.
Arabella’s recent work with an education funder and its grantees and donor partners provides an example of the potential benefits of learning together. Over the past year, Arabella convened a small group of K-12 education funders, researchers, and practitioners to discuss developments in the field of school leadership, their grant making and/or programmatic work, and what they are learning. During meetings, participants exchanged information on trends in building school leadership and principal capacity, effective teaching practices, and emerging grant-making opportunities. Together, this group helped to refine standards that school leaders should aim to meet in creating supportive and effective learning environments for teachers and students. Among other benefits, this collaboration enabled those who participated in it to consider how the eventual adoption of these standards could fit into and build upon their own organizations’ efforts.
Collaborating to Align Existing Efforts
In other cases, funders go beyond learning together and aim to align their efforts more systematically. They bring together peers and grantees to agree upon shared or complementary strategies, invest in aligned causes, and/or create coalitions or working groups focused on specific issues. These efforts are more demanding than efforts simply to learn together, yet the case for them is clear: they reduce investment redundancies; decrease the complexity of the funding landscape for grantees; unearth and help to address unmet needs; and generate unified, coordinated, and more comprehensive problem-solving efforts—even as they allow funders to retain ownership of their individual strategies and grants. To work well, however, such aligned efforts typically require more of a funder’s time, greater flexibility from its board and staff, and in many cases larger financial investments.
Arabella provides support to an initiative to prevent gun violence and its experiences and achievements demonstrate how strategically aligned giving can help strengthen a field’s infrastructure, attract increased financial capital, and ultimately yield greater impact. Approximately four years ago, a group of US funders that included institutional, family, and small regional funders came together to coordinate and align their strategies for strengthening state and national policies to reduce gun violence. Funders mapped the strategies they individually were pursuing to achieve this goal—which ranged from support for research to state-based advocacy campaigns to grassroots organizing—and identified redundancies in their giving, gaps in strategy, and areas that could benefit from leveraged investment. After several years of coordinating, building mutual trust, and refining their collective strategies, the funders now align over $8 million of their direct grant making annually. They also jointly make grants through a pooled donor fund, which they use to meet time-sensitive needs, pilot approaches, and support projects that need supplemental funding to reach scale.
Collaborating to Create and Implement New Solutions, Strategies, and Approaches
While aligning existing entities’ efforts can enhance results, sometimes addressing a serious social problem requires a new strategy, a different approach, or even the creation of an entirely new entity. We’ve helped donors drive such innovative efforts in several ways over the years, but pooled donor funds with shared visions and governance structures are among the most effective. The participants in such collaborative efforts are often familiar with one another, collectively recognize a gap in their field, and agree that closing the gap requires creating an ancillary strategy, approach, or entity. Such efforts require significant investments of time and resources, as well as concessions in individual funders’ decision-making power. But given a clear and shared vision, a sound governance structure, adequate resources, and staff or external capacity to manage the collaborative effort, they offer the potential to pave new pathways to change.
We recently worked with a group of four funders seeking to promote sustainable agriculture while mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. The group believed the most effective approach to advancing their shared interests would be to encourage grantees to partner with one another to further their respective strategies. In early 2012, they launched a pooled fund to spur learning and partnership among researchers, practitioners, funders, and policymakers. They created a shared vision, a grant-making strategy, and a governance framework to guide the fund’s work. They sought a fiscal sponsor to manage the pooled funds, solicited the guidance of an expert advisory board, and enlisted Arabella’s support to manage the collaborative’s day-to-day work. As a central part of their strategy, they required potential grantees to propose projects that involved partnering with others. By mid-2014, the fund had made over $2 million in grants to 16 grantee partnerships, welcomed four new donor partners, and hired staff to manage the collaborative. Initial grantee reports show that working in partnership enabled them to better coordinate communication campaigns, create greater visibility for all partners, and better use research to inform practice—and vice versa.
In each of these cases, funders found ways to amplify the impact of their own investments of both time and money—as well as the contributions of other stakeholders—by going beyond traditional grant making through collaboration. They achieved a variety of goals while managing their time and resources appropriately. While it won’t happen overnight, we expect philanthropy to continue to become more collaborative as current work begins to bear fruit and the models for working together effectively become more familiar.
Lauren Marra is a director at Arabella. She provides guidance on strategy, evaluation, and implementation projects. She has worked on a broad range of institutional, family, and individual client engagements and has honed her expertise in launching large-scale initiatives, developing grant-making programs, and partnering with foundations to refine their strategic plans.
Bruce Boyd joined Arabella Advisors as a principal and managing director in 2007 after spending 20 years building and leading for-profit and nonprofit ventures. Bruce oversees the firm’s Chicago office and has led a range of engagements for Arabella’s foundation, individual and family, and corporate clients. Those engagements have focused on strategic planning, due diligence, program implementation, and evaluation of impact, and they have stretched across a range of issues, including community development, human rights, education, and the environment.