The Power of Collaboration: The Potential for Local and National Funders

[This article is part of a series on the interactions between local and national funders ignited by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). To read more about the series, see the introductory post here.]

by Shari L. Edelstein

Most would agree that there is power in collaboration.

Helen Keller is often quoted as saying: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Admittedly, collaboration can have its challenges: It takes time to build trust, can be cumbersome and process oriented and requires compromise and an ongoing commitment to shared values. For the past 20 years, I have worked in a variety of capacities as a philanthropic professional in Israel and the US. While I have seen funders ask grantees to work together, they are much more hesitant when it comes to collaboration with other funders. This is not to say that it doesn’t happen …  just not enough.

At the Jewish Funders Network conference in Los Angeles last March, I participated in a panel discussion on collaboration between local and national funders. My intent was to challenge funders to think of collaboration as a deliberate way of doing business, not an afterthought. Funders – individual donors, foundations and federations – are more than their money. Funders’ collective knowledge, expertise and experience provide the basis for collaboration. In a recent article, Rabbi Aaron Bisno stated that to collaborate is “to co-labor as equals, with both/all parties involved putting in a commensurate level of resources and effort to achieve a shared outcome for the greater good.”

Working together is critical to address complex issues in the Jewish community successfully. National and local funding can and should complement each other. But, often these funding methods are employed by parties who have little or no dialogue. Examples of where this practice becomes counterproductive are numerous. At times, national grants may divert or redirect local priorities in a way that is inconsistent with the goals of the local agencies and funders. Understanding local needs is crucial when establishing infrastructure for national organizations. This year, the Jim Joseph Foundation set an important example by inviting local and national funders to work together to examine ways to create year-round community-based teen educational initiatives. This collaborative approach should be the norm, not the exception.

Since local and national funders operate at different levels, they often don’t know each other, let alone how they might collaborate. Here are some examples of what they can offer one another:

  • National Funders: In addition to extensive financial and human resources, national funders have information and experience on a wide variety of developments and trends. They provide a global perspective on shared issues. There is no need for local funders to re-invent the wheel in their communities when they can access information about what other communities are doing.
  • Local foundations may have little or no professional staff and typically have fewer financial resources. Nonetheless, local funders have ongoing and direct engagement of stakeholders, offering hands-on experience and human relationships. These connections offer a unique ability to be responsive to local needs and can inform the field.

Jewish education provides a perfect opportunity for collaboration. In the 21st century, there is an urgency in the Jewish community as we note troubling trends such as shrinking synagogue memberships, post-denominational inclinations, preferences to ‘pay as you go,’ a decline in non-Orthodox day schools, an increasing percentage of interfaith families and a new generation where Israel is less at the center. How we choose to address Jewish education will have a direct impact on the trends we are experiencing. A collaborative process of reflection, learning and examination with voices from both national and local funders, leaders, educators and learners is bound to do more than each funder working independently. In fact, it could shed light on how we can work collectively to move the needle in a significant way on Jewish education in America.

There are many avenues for collaboration and not one form will work for every issue or group of funders. Three essential key points to consider:

  1. Start by building relationships: Talking about local experiences and national trends will enlighten both sides. Sharing information makes all funders better informed decision makers.
  2. Create joint funding opportunities: Local funders can support national efforts through general support or specific programs that are directly related to their local missions. Contracting with national organizations to provide their expertise locally is also an option. In addition to providing the essential support for infrastructure of national organizations, national funders could fund local programs, which can be informative for future national initiatives. One word of caution for national funders and organizations: have realistic expectations about the capacity of local funders; grants are not the only way that local sources can support national efforts.
  3. Form strategic partnerships: The Jewish community can address broader issues and put our best minds together to yield greater impact through collaboration. This can be done through methods including appreciative inquiry models, brainstorming opportunities, coalition building, collective impact and shared funding through giving circles.

Cummings Foundation President and CEO Simon Greer noted in his article earlier this year: “It is imperative that foundations expand their mission to include aggressive outreach to others in the philanthropic field … In addition, while much attention is paid to the larger, more established foundations, the 10,000 family foundations, which are newer to their philanthropy endeavors, provide a huge opportunity for new ideas, new resources and new collaborations.”

This is not a theoretical question. If we are going to successfully address the long-term health and vibrancy of our Jewish community in the 21st century, collaboration is essential. By honoring and recognizing respective assets and fostering a proactive willingness to the collaborative process, local and national funders can and should work together for the greater good.

Shari L. Edelstein is a philanthropic consultant and the former Executive Director of 18 Pomegranates.

A previous article in the series, “Act Global to Think Local” by Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, can be found here.