We’re in a new age of collaboration, where foundations and organizations are joining together to design and effect strategies for social change. When our organization, the Garfield Foundation, first began exploring a collaborative approach more than 12 years ago, we felt like an outlier in a philanthropic sector that loved individual theories of change, developed in-house and handed down to grantees. Now we get three or four calls a month from groups that want to engage in and support impact networks. It’s inspiring to see the growing awareness that indeed, if you want to go far, you have to go together, and that experts can’t solve today’s adaptive challenges solo.
Garfield started with a hypothesis that by working together with other funders and grantees, we could make headway not just on individual problems, but also on changing the underlying systems that drive those problems. Our first network, RE-AMP, began as an exploration of how to reduce carbon emissions, and evolved into an active, focused effort across more than 170 nonprofits and foundations in eight Midwestern states. With RE-AMP in its 10th year, we decided that we were ready to try a second experiment so that we could apply and adapt what we learned. We launched our Collaborative Networks program in 2013 with a call for proposals from groups interested in taking a network approach.
We received more than 60 proposals, spanning 800 organizations and funders. Now almost a year in, we are part of a new network that’s focused on a very different goal: reducing the economy’s dependence on cancer-causing chemicals. But like RE-AMP, the program is rooted in collaboration between funders and nonprofits. As others take on the challenge of crafting high-impact, high-functioning networks, we wanted to share some of our insights.
Don’t underestimate alignment.
Collaborative networks are built on alignment. Does everyone in the room share a definition of success? Do they see the system in the same way? In the beginning, everyone has strong reasons to hold onto their own views of the problem—existing grants built on an individual theory of change, personal egos and expertise, legacy investments. When you engage in alignment exercises such as system mapping, you put everyone’s assumptions up on the wall for discussion. Understanding how your partners see that same system inspires insights on gaps and opportunities, helps people spot new connections, and generates social capital—something you’ll need later when one partner lets another partner take the lead, because they know they’re better suited to carry out that piece of the plan. Alignment also lays the groundwork for developing shared metrics, strategies, and implementation.
Getting to alignment takes time—more time than you might like. RE-AMP took 18 months to get through a full strategic planning process. Just getting people in the same room can prove challenging for participants with busy schedules, and once they’re there, alignment conversations aren’t easy. Nobody enjoys feeling like they don’t have all the answers, yet almost everyone will feel that way as you talk your way toward a shared vision. If you’re doing them right, with structured meetings and skilled facilitation, these conversations will be tough but productive. If not, they’ll just be uncomfortable and exhausting.
Reward and reinforce collaboration mindsets.
If solving big social problems is your job, then so is collaboration. But most people don’t get much practice or training in collaboration skills. You may even be in the unfortunate position of having a home organization where reciprocity, active listening, and experimentation are discouraged. Alignment can get a group to an inspiring long-term vision, but individuals need to practice the mindsets that help everyone work together over time.
When many funders think about collaboration, they think about pooled funds. RE-AMP didn’t start with a pooled fund. This gave us time to strengthen the group’s collaboration skills rather than negotiate about money. We played with incentives like handing out kudos and chocolate bars when people shared credit, adapted their strategies to fit the group vision, or changed their mind. After three years we launched a pooled fund, with fund decisions shared equally by all contributors. Naysayers told us that people would self-deal and reward their friends. We believed that the group would prove them wrong. We knew we were on the right track when a member presented three different projects and said: “I know people expect me to advocate for the proposal from my state, but when I look at this other one, I know that it’s a better strategic opportunity.”
Invest in the structure.
This is one of the issues we see funders struggling with—why can’t we just support all the nonprofit staff in the room? Why do you need to fund anything on top of that? This is sort of like asking a 437th-ranked tennis player to get into the top ten without a coach and a trainer. Any significant collaboration needs staff whose primary mission is to make the collaboration work—what Strive’s Jeff Edmonson calls the backbone function. Your network participants are working 110 percent on their current jobs; give them time to engage in collaboration by funding a support structure.
Structural support can take different forms at different stages of the network. In the beginning, working on the collaboration will feel additive until it feels routine. Early support gets partners to the point where collaboration is a habit, not an afterthought, and everyone can see value in a new, shared vision. Once a network is up and running, support keeps people at the table, talking and working through obstacles.
When RE-AMP started, staff from the initial organizations participated using existing grants, while Garfield funded the first year of meetings, system mapping, and facilitation. Other funders agreed to contribute to new projects that emerged but were reluctant to fund the process itself. If you’re waiting to fund projects without supporting the development process, you may never get there.
Funder, know thyself.
Our trustees were willing to be early-stage investors in RE-AMP, and they stepped back from a command-and-control approach in hopes of creating a new way of working with our grantee partners. As RE-AMP grew and we began reaching out to other funders, we ran into foundations that tried to restructure the group to shoehorn it into their foundation’s theory of change. One funder we invited to sit at the table with grantees said, “Why would I share our foundation’s strategy with grantees? That would be like giving them the answers to the test.”
We challenge funders to think creatively about how they can spark or sustain a network. GEO’s Lori Bartzcak offers a good set of starting questions: How flexible can you be with your funds or your strategy, and can you bring connections or other resources besides funding? If you can’t make long-term grants, identify what stage of the collaboration (for example, start-up, ramp-up, or close down) is the best fit for your foundation. If you can fund only specific types of projects, you may want to sit in on the alignment conversations to share your perspective. When you engage with the group, be clear about your limitations.
Make time for the conversation.
What we’re discovering is a set of principles, not a formula. We think better collaboration comes through conversations with our peers about results and failures. This week, we’re holding our second workshop for network practitioners, where people from across the social sector will share best practices and swap tools. Our community is eager to talk about and practice collaboration and network building. We’re making time for that conversation, and we invite you to join us.