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Three Essentials for Accelerating Funder Collaboration

March 20, 2012

(Lisa Philp is vice president for strategic philanthropy and director of GrantCraft at the Foundation Center. A version of this post appeared on Philanthropy New York's Smart Assets blog.)

CollaborationFunder collaboration. Like Mom and apple pie, it's something we can all rally around. But anyone who has worked as a grantmaker knows that it's harder than it sounds. We all work within different contexts and constraints. In a diverse and decentralized field, it's hard to stay on top of who is doing what. We all have our own ideas about what strategies have the most impact and which groups are most worthy. And true collaboration is so much more than convincing others to support your initiatives.

From my former vantage point as a program officer for a variety of foundations and a donor advisor to ultra-high net worth individuals, I think it all begins with learning networks. Through regional associations like Philanthropy New York and affinity groups like Grantmakers for Children, Youth & Families, funders come together to build relationships of trust, compare notes, and discover co-funding opportunities. Dedicated donor advisors scan the field on behalf of their clients, connect the dots, and serve as vital bridges between "emerging" and "organized" philanthropy.

But if we are to accelerate the pace of funder collaboration, our field needs "how-to" frameworks, case studies, and time-saving technology tools that foster, deepen, and connect these learning networks.

Frameworks: First, we need to define what we mean by collaboration. Several frameworks have been created to help grantmakers match collaborative approaches with needs. One typology -- articulated in Moving Ideas and Money (28 pages, PDF), a report from the Funders' Network -- includes information exchange, co-learning, strategic alignment (informal and formal), pooled funds, and joint ventures. The framework included as part of a recent GrantCraft guide on funder collaboratives is meant to spark ideas, stimulate discussion, and suggest possibilities.

Case studies: When I was at J.P. Morgan Private Bank, we created a pooled fund that raised over $5 million from individual donors and family foundations to leverage innovative models of public education reform supported by the U.S. Department of Education and national and local foundations. A detailed case study on this Education Collaboration Fund (ECF) was recently published by The Foundation Review. Case studies like this one illuminate the roles that can be played by donor advisors, provide a blueprint for replication, and offer up an honest assessment of opportunities and challenges.

Technology tools: Key to the success of the ECF was the creation of an online funder collaboration tool by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation Registry i3 provided a hub for nonprofits to post their applications and a password-protected area for funders to quickly and easily compare notes on proposals under consideration for matching funds.

In a related development, the Foundation Center increasingly is being asked to mine its data on foundation giving, philanthropy news, and foundation-supported research to create technology tools that advance funder learning and collaboration. For example, WASHfunders.org -- commissioned by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation on behalf of a group of foundations and corporations that fund water access, sanitation, and hygiene issues globally -- creates a dashboard for WASH funders with interactive maps of their grants featuring overlays of international aid, case studies, outcome tools, recommended readings, news streams, and social media feeds.

Several other custom Web portals across an array of issues and geographies are in the works at the Foundation Center, but what unifies these projects is a desire to leverage technology to understand the state of funding in a field, enable more coordination among funders, and provide easy entry points for new donors. These online tools are "fed" a steady stream of content -- frameworks, case studies, timely data -- that enable learning networks to stay informed of the work of their peers and make the most of their face-to-face time together.

To work at scale in their communities and on their issues, funders must work through networks to collaborate with other foundations, donors, government, the private sector, and nonprofits. Creative frameworks, case studies of successes and failures, and knowledge management tools can go a long way toward accelerating that process.

-- Lisa Philp

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