A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Funder Collaboration: It’s Not Always What You Think

At Common Counsel Foundation, we support, advise, and manage some amazing donor advised funds and family foundations. It is clear, however, that an individual funder (and a small-staffed one no less!) will not solve the world’s intractable problems alone. In fact, it will take a whole network of funders—including grant partners and others—at the same table if we want to make progress.

As a foundation with a small team, funder collaborations are a key part of our DNA. They help us leverage our finite resources and better support communities in creative and responsive ways. Yet, all too often when I talk with other funders about collaboration, there are some reservations.

Let me break down the common myths I hear about funder collaborations, so you can figure out how this valuable tool might fit into your toolbox.

Myth #1 – My foundation has no money to join a funder collaborative!

Some funder collaborations involve pooling or aligning grantmaking dollars, but the majority do not involve moving dollars at all. At Common Counsel Foundation, for example, we engage in a number of learning networks, where the core purpose of the funder collaboration is to learn more about a certain issue with other funders who share a funding interest. There is also a lot of informal funder collaboration, where information is shared between funders through one-on-one or small group conversations.

Myth #2 – My foundation only has a small amount of money, so it is better if we just focus on our grantees.

I often hear this from small foundations who do not want to join an aligned or pooled funding collaboration. The reality is that as one foundation, there are only limited grantmaking dollars available. If you can make the case for funding within a funder collaboration, a small grant from one foundation can leverage many times more financial resources to a grant partner. In addition to financial resources, funders often have other resources—like capacity building support and connections—they can bring to the table after investing initial grantmaking dollars.

Myth #3 – My foundation has not worked with any of these other funders before, so it will not be productive.

Another thing I often hear is that funders do not want to participate in a formal funder collaboration because they lack relationships with key funders involved. Funder collaborations provide the perfect opportunity to build a bigger, more robust network of funders with whom you can interact and partner. Even better, formal funder collaborations might lead to fruitful and long-lasting relationships with funding partners with whom you might never have interacted if not for the funder collaboration.

Myth #4 – Funder collaborations are too time consuming.

There are definitely times when funder collaborations can take a lot of time and effort. They do not always have to, though. What we have found to be helpful in funder collaborations is to follow the motto “go slow to go fast.” This means, at the start of a collaboration, take the time to do two things: build authentic, trusting relationships with other funders in the collaboration, and recognize the self-interest that brings each funder to the table. These two things might take some time at the beginning, but they allow funders to move quickly and in a complementary fashion once they are established.

Myth #5 – My foundation is not part of a funder collaboration.

Although your foundation may not be part of a formal funder collaboration (either a learning network, aligned fund, or pooled fund), you are most likely engaging in informal funder collaborations throughout your day. Conversation with other funders—in which you are learning more about a different funder’s work, grantees, and grantmaking practices—is a key form of informal collaboration. These informal collaborations often provide a strong foundation to develop more formal funder collaborations.

Funder collaborations exist to amplify and complement the strategies used at our respective foundations. For funders that might not know where to start, just pick up the phone and call a colleague. Better yet, attend an Exponent Philanthropy event and meet a new funder or two. It could easily turn into a long-lasting and fruitful collaboration.

Allistair Mallillin has served as program officer at Common Counsel Foundation since 2016, after relocating to Oakland, CA. At Common Counsel Foundation, Allistair manages foundation services and philanthropic advising for member funds, supports donors in aligning their philanthropic practices with social justice and equity grantmaking, and bridges relationships with other funders and allies in the philanthropic field.

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