Raising the Bar Part 4: Grantee Collaboration and Foundation Alignment

by Benjamin Greene

It is my hope that this series will provide insight and help for those seeking to establish or improve their relationships with philanthropic foundations, as well as for foundations seeking to advance the relationships they have with their grantees. For a more detailed introduction to this series, please see my previous posts (part I, part II, and part III).

Foundations generally view their investments in individual grantees in the context of the foundation’s larger mission and vision. The level of partnership between foundations and grantees can be advanced if organizations can demonstrate that, in some manner, they are able to benefit the other organizations or projects in a foundation’s portfolio. Further, foundation grantee partnerships are strengthened when both parties are able to provide each other with insights, expertise and connections that relate to their overall interests and mission. As Gali Cooks, the Executive Director of the Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, explains, the ability to have these types of dialogues is a key component in building open and honest relationships between foundation and organizational professionals and that “it is incumbent upon both foundations and grantees to foster an environment that lends itself to a two-way exchange of ideas and feedback.”

While some organizations may view other grantees in a foundation’s portfolio as “competitors” it might be understood that, from the perspective of the foundation, both organizations are in fact partners in achieving a larger goal. Therefore, just as foundations may seek to be aware of grantee’s other funders, grantees might strive to be familiar with a foundation’s larger philanthropic portfolio. Organizations should be particularly aware of the projects and leadership of other grantees that share their constituencies or fields of interest.

Such awareness is essential to identifying opportunities for collaboration or support, and foundations are often happy to facilitate the appropriate introductions when certain connections have not yet been established. The best first step in identifying these opportunities can often occur when organizations that are not in regular contact, take the time to discuss their current work and ideas with one another. These conversations, while likely beneficial in themselves, can reveal shared areas of interest, which either party may not have been formerly aware of. Ariel Groveman Weiner, the Senior Program Officer at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, notes, “one of the best things I can do as a foundation professional is bring together people who work in the same field but have never spoken to one another.”

As the Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported, “The turbulent economy is creating new incentives for charities to cooperate.” Collaboration and synergies between grantees can happen in range of manners. While some organizations may be able to partner directly by co-sponsoring a program or shared purchasing agreements, there are also numerous things that can occur on smaller or more informal levels. The sharing of best practices, research, or opportunities for organizational/professional development can be highly beneficial, particularly as many organizations are now operating with reduced resources.

When developing new projects, organizations may wish to consider if the project can also be of value to or informed by a foundation’s other grantees. However, before proposing to a foundation that a project could be of benefit to another grantee, it is often best to first discuss the idea with the cited organization. Such advanced discussions demonstrate an organization’s desire to collaborate as well as provide foundations with a more accurate picture of the value of the proposed project.

While grantees may pro-actively seek to connect with one another, foundations also have a unique capability to serve as conveners of groups of individuals or organizations, which otherwise may not come together around a common table. Foundations can take full advantage of this capacity by bringing together both their grantees as well as additional organizations, in a manner that allows them to explore common challenges and opportunities. By offering to play a role in such convenings, grantees have the opportunity to demonstrate their organizational leadership and ability to work productively with other organizations.

While foundations strive to be experts in their fields of investment, they recognize that the true authorities are the organizations directly working on the ground. Therefore foundations greatly benefit when grantees share information that may advance a foundation’s understanding of a particular field or idea, even if the information is not directly related to a project the grantee or foundation is involved in. Sharing things, like articles or innovative programs, in real time (as opposed to just including them in a scheduled report) allows foundations to increase their awareness and expertise in areas, which they may care about, but not have the staff capacity to closely follow.

In the same manner, foundations also benefit when grantees are able to help them clarify misunderstandings, they may have, yet may not be aware of, in regards to how particular ideas are playing out or developing in the field. While it may be uncomfortable for grantees to “correct” their supporting foundations, given the inherent power dynamics, foundations are nonetheless better off when they are making their decisions based on well informed and accurate information. In this, as well as all aspects of foundation grantee partnerships, both parties benefit when they seek to establish a relationship that allows for open and honest dialogues.

Benjamin Greene is the Program Associate at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation where he collaborates on a variety of national initiatives and research projects. Benjamin has a master’s in Jewish Education and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.