Greater Good Blog

Tips for Governing an Evolving Donor Collaborative

Daniel Widome

Joining with other funders to achieve common goals can be powerful—that is, if the collaborative’s governance structure aligns with its goals and needs.


Selecting the governance model for a co-funding effort is a choice that can make or break a collaborative partnership. Determining the best ways to make decisions, communicate externally, expand or exit membership, and more is critical to the success of any collaborative effort. What’s more, as a collaborative effort evolves, its governance needs may evolve, too, and funders will need to adjust accordingly.

Arabella Advisors has helped many funders design, implement, and evolve collaborative governance structures. The shifting needs of a growing collaborative effort are evident in the case of the Collaborative for Student Success (CSS), an initiative launched by a group of nine funders that invests in building support for the successful implementation of new state education standards and assessments. At its inception, CSS was led by an advisory board, which was comprised of the funder partners and operated on a consensus basis. But as CSS grew, the organization’s governance needs changed. Now, the advisory board acts more like a traditional nonprofit board: it gives guidance on strategy while a 10-person, full-time staff is responsible for managing day-to-day operations and implementing the strategy.

In November, Arabella and CSS will host a breakout session at the Collaboration Conference 2015, which will be hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in Houston, Texas. In advance of that session, we asked Karen Nussle, CSS’s executive director, and Rich McKeon, the program director of education at the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, a founding funder of CSS, to reflect on their experiences thus far.

How did you initially determine that a collaborative approach was the most appropriate for this topic?

RICH McKEON: We knew the communications challenges that states were facing were universal, and as a result, no single foundation could solve this problem. Plus, we knew we had a lot to learn about how we might approach this issue, and that different foundations would bring different information to the conversation. I often liken those first months to a situation where a number of foundations were interested in going swimming, but none wanted to be the first to jump in the pool. We were a new national foundation at the time, and we had spending targets to meet, so we decided to jump in—and hoped others would follow. We were fortunate they did.

Over time, how has the governance structure of CSS evolved? What necessitated such evolution?

McKEON: Our initial structure called for foundations to make nearly every spending decision jointly. This made it safe for the foundations to get involved because they knew they would have a say on all major funding decisions, and it helped us to get to know one another and our views on these issues. But over time, we realized we needed to make decisions more quickly in order to respond to a rapidly changing climate. So we decided to give much more authority to a leader who could make decisions as situations changed without having to consult a bunch of foundation staff members who were difficult to convene due to other responsibilities. Now, the funding partners approve the overall direction of CSS, but the nature of the work has expanded so much that we rely on Karen and her staff to execute the strategy the funders agreed upon.

What unexpected challenges have you faced as the governance structure of CSS has evolved?

KAREN NUSSLE: The real challenge has been the fast-paced nature of the work and keeping all the funders informed. Given the rapidly changing political landscape of the standards and assessments, we have needed to adjust our strategy and direction every three to four months, sometimes quite significantly. So, my challenge is to gain the confidence of the advisory board so that I have the flexibility to meet evolving needs. I also have to work hard to constantly keep them informed so that their confidence level remains high. That’s hard to do with a group of nine funders. But we have worked out a good system: I talk more regularly to two advisory board co-chairs than I do the full board. They help me know when more communication is needed with the full group, and they facilitate that communication, too, so it’s not an overwhelming time commitment for me.

What are some essential elements for this sort of governance structure?

NUSSLE: Building trust is very important—trust among the funders and trust in the staff leadership. Under our structure, each funder gets one vote; they are equal peers at the table no matter how much funding they have contributed. This can sometimes be a difficult issue to navigate, but it has not been so for us, and this speaks to the level of trust that we have been able to develop.

McKEON: Karen makes an important point. Although we never needed to resort to votes since we were always able to gain consensus among the funders, our governance documents allow us to do so if needed. Building trust among the fellow foundation staff members allowed every funder (big or small) to have confidence that their voice was heard and respected in the discussion. Having trust in the Collaborative’s staff is also paramount to continued progress.

What advice would you offer to funders who are considering collaborative efforts?

McKEON: First, ensure that you have general agreement on the types of outcomes you’re seeking, so that your overarching goals can remain aligned and consistent even as the external landscape changes and as the needs of your collaborative effort evolve. Second, spend time getting to know the other funders around the table and how they think about these issues, so that you can build a level of trust that ensures all voices are heard and respected. Finally, find a leader who can gain the confidence of the group of funders and who is comfortable telling you when you’re wrong—in many cases, such an “on-the-ground” leader can see the landscape from a different vantage point, and can make adjustments that the funders may not be able to anticipate.

NUSSLE: I couldn’t agree more with Rich—reaching agreement about what success looks like is critical. Our funders agree greatly about the Collaborative’s ultimate goal, which means I do not need to be constantly navigating the politics of the funder group. Their clarity of purpose and trust in me and my team have been invaluable.

For more on the lessons CSS has learned and insights into how to begin and grow a collaborative funding effort, be sure to attend Karen and Rich’s session, “Governing an Evolving Donor Collaborative,” at the Collaboration Conference on November 16 in Houston, and stay tuned to the Greater Good blog for more examples of successful collaborative approaches.


Daniel Widome is a director at Arabella, where he provides strategy and evaluation services to a variety of clients and contributes to the firm’s thought leadership.

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