We Should Do Something Together

 In Community, Foundations, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Giving, Philanthropy, Relationships
Listen to “We Should Do Something Together” by Fred Smith


Now that the first devastating wave of the pandemic has hit and communities are beginning to slowly open up we can expect to see the word “collaboration” back in the news. Already, there have been articles written by organizational experts and pundits with little experience in foundation and non-profit work predicting the future and offering advice on how best to respond to a changed world. Whenever there is a crisis in funding there are those who jump to the conclusion that both foundations and non-profits working together is not only necessary but easily done.

I have been part of a number of conversations in the last few weeks about the value of donors collaborating on projects – both locally and internationally. While we often encourage our grantees to collaborate, it’s too often true that neither we nor they know what that means or what is expected. Like many words, it means something different in the mind of everyone involved and we often start working on collaboration without taking the time to define it and get on the same page. Years ago, I read a paper by the Council on Foundations about the several levels or the continuum of collaboration – from the slightest to the most serious.  I think that paper is out of print but if someone found it that would save us all a good deal of misunderstanding, false starts, disappointments, unrealistic expectations and hurt feelings.  As I recall, there are four levels of cooperation and each is more complicated than the last.

The Four Levels

First, there is information sharing. We come together to exchange information with little, if any, negotiation or agreement required. These shorter-term relationships exist without any clearly defined mission, structure or planning effort. There are no expectations and no one is walking out of the room with anything to do. A group of foundations in Dallas are doing exactly that by using a common application from non-profits that allows the foundations to access the information and decide individually whether or not they want to know more. 

Next is what we call one-time funding partnerships. They are slightly more involved, often guided by an initiating donor and study groups of donors organized around a problem or issue where each donor reserves the right to fund independently. We have a common interest and want to know more about the issue itself and what others are doing and are willing to fund the research for a specific amount of time. 

The third level is pooled funding. Donors commit a certain amount of funds for a set period of time to work toward solving a problem of common interest or a project that needs more money than a single donor can provide. This also is more complicated than one-time partnerships as the issues and amounts need to be thoroughly discussed and time spent coming to an agreement on where best to place the money. There are many opinions about that and there needs to be a facilitation process for sorting out priorities and accommodating the different styles of giving. This is like a “family” of foundations coming together and the dynamics are similar to any family. Procedures and processes are important. As well, these work best when there are existing relationships of trust and prior experience working together.

The most difficult and sophisticated level of cooperation is true collaboration. In this stage the funders are actually working together on an issue. They may even be seeking outside funding from other sources for a project that is bigger than their resources combined. At this level a high degree of planning and division of roles along with open and consistent communication between funders and non-profits is required. Participants bring separate organizations into a new structure with full commitment to a common mission. Ideally, the funders would provide support for a staff person to manage the collaboration and all the communication and planning it requires. Everyone involved needs to be clear about the level of their commitment – not just as funders but as contributors to this entity that is bigger than a collection or network of funders. There is a mission to accomplish and that requires everyone being on the same page and committed to working through the changes and complications that are bound to arise.

So, think about what you want to do as you talk about cooperation with other funders or you are asking non-profits to work together. Collaboration takes time and building trust. It’s difficult but done right it is well worth it.  


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    Paul Penley

    Our funder collaboration, the Kingdom Giving Fund, has taken serious work and time. It’s fun to now be giving away $30 million of pooled funds over 3 years from 12 collaborating family foundations, but the process of defining the shared mission, dividing responsibilities, and establishing procedures was lengthy. We spent 2018 finding who wanted to do it and 2019 building our processes. Finally in 2020, we are making big bets on faith-based nonprofits that can turn $1-$3 million grants into sustained, measurable impact. Watching the first big grant we made in 2019 to CarePortal build out a digital platform that 1,000+ churches used to help thousands of kids and adults in need during the last 2 months of lockdown makes the exhausting and lengthy work of consensus-building worth it. If you are looking to give collaboratively at levels 3 or 4 above, plan to be patient and persevere for years to get it operating well.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith

      Thanks, Paul. This is good to know and will encourage people thinking about collaborating.

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