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Minding the Ps and Ts of Funder Collaboration

December 06, 2013

(The following post was written by Nancy Jamison, executive director, San Diego Grantmakers, and Jennifer James, vice president of Harder+Company Community Research and a San Diego Grantmakers' funder collaboration consultant.)

Collaboration_clipartIf you are a grantmaker or work in the field of philanthropy, you understand the value of working with other funders and stakeholders to achieve shared goals. You're probably very familiar with the need to avoid working in "silos"; the power of "collaboration"; and how those things differ from "collective impact." And you almost certainly can relate to the fact that all of it is easier said than done.

At San Diego Grantmakers (SDG), a regional membership association for different types of funders, we have learned that even though the concept of working together seems straightforward, doing it is anything but. In many ways, however, grantmaker associations like ours are well positioned to facilitate collaboration among funders and across sectors. Among other things, we can be neutral conveners of grantmakers, service providers, infrastructure organizations, and business and civic leaders. And we can assist with communication and meeting coordination. As a result, this kind of support has emerged as a valued SDG member service.

The intensity and purpose of SDG's member collaborations varies. Some are learning groups comprised only of funders who meet occasionally to learn about topics of mutual interest. Sometimes this learning leads to aligned funding for specific nonprofits or projects. Sometimes it leads to convening or partnering with external stakeholders to do community problem solving or projects. We affectionately call this the "learning-to-doing continuum."

And so, though we certainly haven't discovered the foolproof, no-risk formula for successful collaboration, here are some lessons -- or collaboration "Ps & Ts" -- we've learned along the way:

Personality: Just as is the case with work colleagues, the personalities of the people sitting around the table matter. Strong meeting facilitation skills go a long way in helping participants balance process with content, utilize their different strengths, and stay interested. Emotional intelligence matters maybe more than IQ!

Time: Successful collaboration takes time and participants must be committed to consistently attending meetings, doing their homework, and having patience while social capital is established. It ALWAYS takes more time than you think it will. After learning the hard way, we've discovered that securing support up front for feasibility studies to identify whether there is sufficient interest, agreed-upon goals and scope of work, sources of funding, and the collaboration's ultimate value also helps save time.

Politics: Understanding the back stories and existing relationships before people come to the table is also important. We have unwittingly stepped into decades-old dynamics between organizations and inadvertently helped re-open old wounds. We now ask more questions and spend more time on upfront relationship building.

Turf: Funders have missions and communities of focus. Elected officials have platforms and constituents. Nonprofits have populations they serve and existing funding streams. Reminding people to try to leave their singular agendas, but not their expertise, at the door can help keep the shared goal in perspective. (A clear group charter that outlines values and ground rules for interaction also helps.)

Power: Participants with resources (financial or otherwise) may attempt to sway group decisions that are not in the best interest of the group or the task at hand. We try to create space where all perspectives are valued. The dynamic created when grantmakers and grantseekers come together can be particularly rough territory -- and requires lots of attention.

Trust: It takes time to build trust on a personal and institutional level, but the development of social capital matters. Break bread with one another, laugh over your beverage of choice, and enjoy the long journey needed to build a stronger community.

SDG's funder collaborations have focused on such issues as homelessness, supporting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, transition-age youth, and prisoner reentry, to name a few. You can learn more about our collaborations at www.sdgrantmakers.org.

-- Nancy Jamison and Jennifer James

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