A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Supporting Nonprofit Collaboration: Helping Your Grantees Accomplish More Together

The Children’s Guild Foundation focuses its funding in Western New York State on services that improve the lives of children with special needs and their families.

Recognizing that Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) are where these children begin their lives, the foundation set out to achieve impact at the earliest stage of life. With two systems in the region—the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo and the Catholic Health System—in direct competition for funding for many of the same services (including NICUs), and many families being separated as children were transferred to Women & Children’s Hospital for more intensive care, the foundation created space for doctors and administrators from both health systems to build understanding, trust, and relationships. The foundation made it clear that they valued partnership and would continue to fund both organizations, as both were needed to serve the region’s population.

The two health systems formed a strategic alliance that allows for shared staffing and contractual services and helps to ensure that, no matter where a child is born, the child and family receive the gold standard of healthcare, as part of a larger effort to eliminate or mitigate possible lifelong disabilities.

When initiated from the ground up—from the nonprofits themselves—collaborations can serve communities effectively and efficiently. Strong collaborations maximize nonprofits’ impact by providing administrative stability; decreasing duplication, competition, and overlap of services; and bringing more diverse approaches to complex problems.

Funders are uniquely positioned to cultivate and support nonprofit collaborations.

But first, what makes for a successful nonprofit collaboration? David LaPiana, a consultant specializing in this area, points to the following as factors in what he calls “Real Collaboration”:

  • Nonprofits work closely on substantive issues, not just fundraising.
  • Partners develop trusting, open, committed relationships with one another.
  • Collaboration is voluntary and sincere, not created in response to a grant.
  • Nonprofit collaboration takes time—longer than most normal grant cycles.
  • Funders cannot create true collaboration; you can only enhance it.

Ways Funders Can Support Nonprofit Collaboration

Below are some ways to support informal or formal collaboration, including options that cost little or nothing.

  • Create space. Find ways to help grantees or other area nonprofits get to know one another—their would-be collaborators. Some Exponent Philanthropy members hold monthly or quarterly lunches with nonprofits, in structured or unstructured formats. Others gather nonprofits from across a city, region, or state for a free or discounted daylong training, convening, or celebration.
  • Support exploration and learning. In the early stages of a collaboration, most of the cost is simply in time spent by key nonprofit leaders to explore options and build relationships. A modest grant can help to provide meeting space, meeting facilitation, and other professional services, or site visits to similar initiatives. Or you might sponsor workshops that teach nonprofits about effective collaboration. Keep in mind that some of the strongest collaborations form organically over time once trusting relationships have been established.
  • Fund general or technical assistance. A grant can support hard costs involved in working together, or, if a collaboration hit bumps in the road, you might offer assistance in resolving the difficulties. If hiring a consultant or staff to manage or support the collaboration is necessary, consider funding part or all of the position.
  • Build connections. Facilitating connections, particularly through intentional and light-handed introductions, can go a long way toward opening people to new possibilities and sparking collaboration. Think through the people and organizations that could benefit by joining the conversation or being informed of the work of the nonprofit or collaboration: grantees and other nonprofits, community members, funders, researchers and subject matter experts, journalists or media, educators, business leaders, political representatives, and public servants.
  • Acknowledge that it’s hard. Collaboration is inherently challenging; it takes time and uses already scarce resources, plus relies on often tricky interpersonal and power dynamics. Funders can do a service to their grantees by frequently acknowledging this fact, and by making clear that they don’t expect their efforts at partnership to be easy.
  • Lead by example. If you’d like to see more grantees collaborating, consider doing so yourself. Funder collaborations include: collegial networks or membership organizations that share ideas and best practices; regional or other groups that share common grant applications; funders that share back-office support, staff, or other administrative functions; and funding partnerships of all sorts, including strategic alignment and pooled funds.

“Serving as a convener and cultivator of networks and collaborations is one of our priorities as a foundation,” says Cathie Gura, president of The Children’s Guild Foundation in Buffalo, NY. “We look to bring together organizational leaders to build consensus for action around key issues facing those within the special needs community. We believe that this work leverages and enhances our grant funding and allows us to achieve systematic change in our community.”

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