What’s With the Recent Attention to Collaboration among Funders? And, by the way, Whatever Happened to Collective Impact?

collaborationCollaborations are hot! It was a running topic at the Council on Foundations annual meeting in San Francisco. There were many sessions on all sorts of effective and successful collaborations, mergers, partnerships; Collaboration was the theme of the recent national “Summit on Family Philanthropy.” Collaboration was the subject a recent workshop at the Foundation Center, which taught methods for encouraging organizational collaborations of all sorts. Even while about to publish this piece I received notice of 2 upcoming national meetings focused exclusively on Collaboration.

And this says nothing about the number of organizations, consultants, and affinity groups issuing reports, white papers, and anecdotal evidence of the importance of partnerships and collaborations of all sorts. [I guess I am not exempt – witness this posting!]

As I attended all of these meetings, and read even more, I rarely heard the words “collective impact.”

That was a bit of a surprise. For the previous 2 or 3 years, it was hard to attend any philanthropy meeting or conference without hearing “collective impact” around every turn. It was as if any conversation of the value of collaboration had morphed into this articulation. It is a phrase laden with aspiration, and more important, acknowledges that most of the problems worth solving require inter-sector collaboration, on the local, regional, national, or international level. Filled with promise … and perhaps faddishness? We’ll return to this a little later.

Long time readers and clients are well aware of my work in advising funders in implementing partnerships and collaborations. My knowledge was earned over almost a 20-year period: I have chaired several funding collaboratives and have participated in several others. A practicum I wrote a number of years ago, providing a detailed checklist for effective collaboration, updated regularly, has been requested more than any single practicum piece I have written. [As I said in another recent post, it is available upon request.] Yet on those occasions when I was asked to speak about “collective impact” I demurred since I wasn’t convinced that I fully understood the difference between this term and many other successful but more modestly labeled collaborations and partnerships.

Let’s be clear: “alone” is the default funding behavior. No funders collaborate except for the purpose of leveraging their partnership to accomplish greater impact, to do what they don’t feel they can accomplish alone. Many collaborations are for the clear purpose of leveraging money, either by expanding the funding pool or by achieving better efficiencies. But many others are created to leverage influence or to access greater expertise. As we’ll discuss below, a growing number of funders are committed to address and redress deeply persistent systemic issues; even the richest funders recognize that many of society’s ills and woes simply cannot be solved by throwing money alone, that they require multi-sector coordination, and demand public policy advocacy.

“Horizontal partnerships,” a way of defining funding collaboratives, are based on all of the collaborators being on the same side of the table. Even if not everyone brings an equal amount of money, influence, or expertise to that table, the collective is there to have an impact on an external project, program, or organization.

There are also “vertical partnerships,” when a funder or funders and an organization or organizations work together on a project. This is not the same as the currently common euphemism that many funders use to say that all of their grantees are partners. No, a vertical partnership is when there is joint planning on outcome expectations, on funding needs, on long-term exit strategies, and on decision-making. While many funder-grantee arrangements have many or most of these characteristics, what distinguishes a vertical partnership is the collaboration from the very beginning of the planning and carries all the way through implementation.

In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in “inter-sector collaborations.” Cooperation between the private sector, the philanthropy sector, the nonprofit/ngo sector and the government sector are exponentially more complex. Each has a different accountability, a set of legitimate but not always overlapping stakeholders, different bottom line measures, and even divergent operating ethics. In a funding partnership among foundations, the foundations can voluntarily agree to limit their prerogatives; some inter-sector partners don’t even have the legal right to make those concessions. Yet solving the systemic challenges of our time requires no less.

Many of the largest and far reaching inter-sector collaborations are at the very beginnings, or only now beginning to yield reportable and measurable results. And it still remains to be seen how widely replicable some are.

One fascinating example is “Pay For Success” or “Social Impact Bonds.” They are intriguing and seem to suggest some real applicability for public sector financial benefit and societal benefit at the same time – but it is by no means clear how widely applicable they realistically are. Very telling about some of the early models is that the participation of many well-healed wealth companies has been conditioned on guarantees by the philanthropy sector!!! [There is a very large literature on this to which I refer you if you want more in-depth discussion of this topic than this post allows.]

In general, for all of their challenges, though, such collaborations must be a sine-qua-non for systemic problem solving. Take any issue: public health, poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, refugees, education, to list a few “simple” ones. No one sector can ever solve these issues alone, and none can be adequately redressed without governments, social service, private sector, and philanthropic involvement working hand in hand. So even if some of the models have yet to be fully proven, any funder committed to systemic issues must consider inter-sector collaborations as a part of their philanthropic toolbox.

But, let’s be clear, especially with the onslaught of attention to collaborations in every corner of the philanthropy field: partnerships are not for the faint of heart, or for the impatient. They are time consuming; they introduce a variety of complexities to the funding process that individual funders need not face; successful collaborations require that participants surrender some of their autonomy. Upfront agreements on process, decision-making, management, desired outcomes, longevity, and exit strategies all require a seriousness of purpose and clarity. And those are only what must be decided before beginning.

And once begun, any collaboration demands continued commitment. Unlike a grant from a single funder that may simply require oversight, monitoring, or evaluation, collaboration works only when the partners continue to invest their time, energy, and wisdom. And since there are more players in a collaborative, and any projects worth collaborating on require in-depth attention, collaborations are rarely simple and will call for for regular redirection, modification, and reinvention.

If collaborations and partnerships are intriguing but new for you, I recommend starting by going slow and small. Make sure you have the stomach and energy, and if you are a foundation, that the culture of your foundation is sufficiently compatible with your new partners. You may find that you are NOT a great collaborator. Despite what some in our field may intimate, that is perfectly legitimate. There is still great and important philanthropy that yields meaningful impact when done alone.

If, though, you discover that this is your métier, it is always possible to expand your reach as time goes on. And you may find that you are engaged in a level of challenging and sophisticated funding which truly does hold the promise of impact collectively way beyond that which you could have accomplished alone. In other words, some may say: “collective impact.”

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.