Grantmakers increasingly seek to collaborate with one another to achieve greater impact. By doing so, they can leverage each other’s dollars, experience, and points of view. But collaboration can be tough. Two new reports, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO’s) Collaborative Funding for Greater Impact: A Case Study of the Cincinnati Experience (PDF) and California Civic Participation Funders’ Bolder Together (PDF), explore lessons learned from successful collaborations. Key principles for these groups include:
Create a unifying vision, and then enable funder autonomy. In Cincinnati, the funders participating in the Strive Partnership and the local Social Innovation Fund initiative share an interest in improving outcomes for young people. The funders focus on a spectrum of specific areas, such as early childhood issues or college completion. But the cradle-to-career vision at the heart of both collaborative efforts has brought a core group of funders together in the belief that they can achieve more impact through a unified approach to these issues than they can by working alone.
Similarly, the California Civic Participation Funders settled on an approach that preserves autonomy for all of the participating organizations. In essence, every organization still makes its own grant decisions, but they are doing so in a highly coordinated way – i.e., with an understanding of the group’s broader goals and objectives, and of how their organizations’ investments fit into a bigger puzzle. In other words, once everyone agrees on what the finished puzzle should look like, each member then contributes its respective pieces to complete it.
Broaden the table. Both collaborative efforts specifically sought out input from a broad cross-section of community stakeholders. For example, the California Civic Participation Funders convened community leaders to learn about the unique conditions in each county and explore local priorities and perspectives. And Cincinnati’s Social Innovation Fund was an outgrowth of the cross-sector Cincinnati Strive Partnership.
Both collaborations also included funders of different sizes and types. In Cincinnati, each of the contributing grantmakers gets one vote in all decisions regardless of its investment size. And the California Civic Participation Funders include both 501(c)3 private foundations that are restricted in their participation in political campaigns and elections, and 501(c)4 organizations entities that do not have to meet the same restrictions. By broadening the table in this way, the collaborative bridges the divide between mobilizing voters for an election and sustaining a social movement when there’s no upcoming election.
Learn together. Members of both collaboratives emphasize that they consider their groups to be “learning communities,” focused on improving their work over time. In Cincinnati, the Social Innovation went as far as to state in the subgrantee request for proposals: “The Social Innovation Fund is particularly interested in supporting and rewarding organizations with a demonstrated history and commitment to using data to … continuously improve program and organizational performance.” And in California, funder participants note that the diversity of the collaborative — and, more specifically, the varying interests and priorities of the participating funders — creates especially fertile ground for learning.
Join the discussion: What local collaborative efforts do you see as very successful? What factors contributed to that success?
-Anne Bauers, MCF research manager