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This Week in PubHub: Funder Collaboratives

December 06, 2010

(Kyoko Uchida manages PubHub, the Foundation Center's online catalog of foundation-sponsored publications. In her last post, she looked at four reports on the topic of foundation communications.)

"Collaboration" has been a much-discussed concept in philanthropy for years now, but information about how funders are collaborating, the effectiveness of those efforts, and lessons learned isn't always easy to find. That's why this week in PubHub, we're taking a closer look at some of the foundation literature on funder collaboratives.

What is a funder collaborative? For a quick overview, take a look at Moving Ideas and Money: Issues and Opportunities in Funder Funding Collaboration, a 2002 report from the Funders' Network on Smart Growth and Livable Communities and the Chapin Hall Center for Children. According to the report, collaboration can range from information exchange, co-learning, and informal and formal strategic alignments to pooled funding, joint ventures, and hybrid networks. The report also highlights various elements of successful collaboration, including clearly stated values, goals, and methods; an emphasis on forging relationships, trust, and accountability; and shared responsibility for communications and messaging.

What are the benefits and challenges associated with funder collaboratives? A case study of one long-term funder collaborative can be found in two reports about the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a joint initiative of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford, MacArthur, and Rockefeller foundations that was later joined by the Hewlett, Mellon, and Kresge foundations. Accomplishments of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2000-2010 examines each foundation's contributions to the initiative, grants made by the collaborative, and the impact of those grants in the nine African countries targeted by the initiative. Among other things, the report argues that not only did the initiative underwrite improvements in higher education infrastructure, capacity, and access in the nine countries in question, it also made it possible for the foundations involved to do and accomplish things that they could or would not have done had they each been acting on their own. Perhaps more significantly, being part of a collective helped the individual foundations improve the effectiveness of their efforts by exposing them to new strategies, leveraging their grants with other grants, helping staff develop expertise, and suggesting other co-funding opportunities.

These benefits came with some hard lessons, however, as described in Lessons From a Ten-Year Funder Collaborative: A Case Study of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa. The report offers a number of recommendations for overcoming differences in organizational culture, changes in foundation leadership, and other messy issues, including: Focus on initiatives that partners would not be able to fund on their own; set clear goals and expectations; establish coordination and decision-making structures; be sure to secure senior management's commitment to the effort; take time to build trust through frank discussions of individual agendas and resource limitations; and develop strategies for the long-term sustainability of the effort.

The GrantCraft report Funder Collaboratives: Why and How Funders Work Together explores the motivations behind such efforts as well as the issues involved in designing and running a collaborative. Among other things, funders cite scale and efficiency, shared learning, strength in numbers, and access to non-monetary resources as some of the benefits that collaboratives provide. And the report stresses (as the two reports mentioned above do) that the secret to a successful collaborative is rooted in clear goals, trust and respect, and an agreed-upon framework for coordinating activity and resolving problems.

One could argue that collaboration among grantmakers is never more important than when they are responding to a crisis. From Crisis to Opportunity: Learning From One Region's Response to the Economic Downturn, a case study compiled by FSG Social Impact Advisors, examines the coordinated efforts of various Pacific Northwest funders to do more with less during the recent economic downturn. Based on their experience, the grantmakers suggest that foundations which find themselves in a similar situation should engage in a dialogue with grantees, partners, and the larger community so as to better understand the needs of and resources available to the community; periodically reassess their approach in the context of their own capabilities as well as the changing external environment; work to maximize the effectiveness of their resources; and collaborate with others to leverage those resources and avoid duplication of effort. Best Practices in Disaster Grantmaking: Lessons From the Gulf Coast, a 2008 publication from Philanthropy New York, similarly describes the creation of funder collaboratives as an effective practice for funders hoping to respond to changing needs in a long-term post-disaster recovery situation.

What do grantees think of funder collaboratives? According to the GrantCraft report Quick Question: What Do Grantees Think of Funder Collaboratives?, whereas 70 percent of funders rated their experience with collaboratives as "positive," grantees were almost as likely to say their experience was "mixed" (43 percent) or "negative" (5 percent) as they were to say it was "positive" (52 percent). What accounts for this discrepancy? Not surprisingly, many of the grantees' comments mirror lessons learned by funders; the difference is that grantees are more likely to be affected by un-streamlined reporting requirements, lack of consensus around expectations and goals, and poor coordination of the collaborative effort. Some grantees also expressed concern that collaboratives could further limit the supply of available grant dollars.

Want to learn more? Here are a couple of other resources that may be of interest:

Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement in North Carolina, a 2009 report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, describes how several collaboratives came to see advocacy and organizing as one means to achieve a common goal.

Giving Out Globally: A Resource Guide of Funding Mechanisms to Support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights in the Global South and East, a 2009 publication from the Arcus Foundation, highlights the emergence of regional collaborative funding mechanisms for LBGT rights issues in East Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as LGBT "diaspora" funds dedicated to raising funds from immigrants in the U.S. for LGBT efforts in their home countries.

What are your thoughts about and experiences with funder collaboratives? Have those experiences been positive, negative, or a bit of both? And what advice would you shre with funders who are considering creating or joining a collaborative? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

And don't forget to visit PubHub, where you can browse hundreds of publications on a range of philanthropy-related topics.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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