Any thoughtful observer of philanthropy will note that, when working on stubborn societal problems, no single actor—even the wealthiest of foundations—can accomplish much by itself. This is both a historical fact and a present day reality.
Yet most would likely agree that there still isn’t enough collaboration and that the collaborations that do occur aren’t always effective. According to research we conducted at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), commissioned by the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, foundation leaders see a lack of collaboration as a barrier to progress. However, they also believe more and better collaboration could unlock much more impact.
This begs the question, if foundation leaders themselves acknowledge collaboration as crucial, why isn’t it happening more?
I’d suggest there are four important, interrelated barriers.
1. “Biznification” of philanthropy
The first barrier is philanthropy’s tendency to look to the private sector for analogs without recognizing just how different the dynamics of the private and nonprofit sectors really are. The main difference is the lack of competitive forces in philanthropy. On top of that, foundations are working on the most stubborn and difficult challenges—the very ones that have defied government or business solutions. While a single company might be able to “disrupt” the taxi industry, for example, it is pure fantasy to think a single foundation will “disrupt” poverty or climate change.
Yet for nearly two decades, foundations have been told to develop and execute strategies focused on differentiation and “unique positioning.” The authors of this influential 1999 Harvard Business Review article, for example, argued that the “underlying logic” of strategy in philanthropy is the same as in business. This argument, parroted by many over the years, has done damage, because it is flat-out wrong. In business, your strategy should be yours alone. In philanthropy, if your strategy is yours alone, it will almost surely fail.
2. Misaligned measurement incentives
The second factor working against collaboration is an over-emphasis on causality and attribution. As foundation leaders seek to demonstrate their accountability and show their boards their achievements, they have created unintended negative consequences.
Those consequences include too much focus on taking credit or building a “brand.” This leads to an over-emphasis on the individual institution as the unit of analysis that actually undermines collective effectiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big believer in the importance of foundations assessing themselves to learn and improve. But we need to get over the fantasy that there is always a definitive, causal link between an individual foundation’s funding and a quantifiable impact achieved. Instead, funders should thoughtfully gather and analyze data to reach inevitably imperfect judgments about their contributions to achieving programmatic goals, acknowledging that they are one among many actors. Obsessive seeking of individual credit can get in the way of productive collaboration; this is as true for foundations working on tough challenges as it is for students working on a group project.
3. Power dynamics
The power dynamic between funders and their most important collaborators—their grantees—as well between funders and intended beneficiaries is another impediment to successful collaboration. Surrounded by grantees and aspiring grantees eager to get funding, foundations live in a bubble of positivity.
This dynamic affects how comfortable grantees feel sharing problems or challenges with their funders. In the worst cases, grantees withhold crucial information from their funders out of fear. Funders, in turn, are sheltered and disconnected, not just from grantees, but also from the people who should matter most—those whose lives they seek to improve.
While nothing can altogether alter the dynamic between the funder and the funded—between those with resources and those who need them—there are tools to help. CEP, for example, has created confidential and comparative feedback loops through our Grantee Perception Report (GPR). The report allows funders to understand what grantees really think, and has revealed important insights about foundations’ strengths and weaknesses.
In the research we conducted last year, foundation leaders rated listening to and learning from the experiences of beneficiaries and grantees as the top two most promising practices for increasing impact. As Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker writes, “We can’t simply invest in our partners’ projects; we have to invest in our partners, themselves. We also need to be patient, commit to more long-term assistance, and remove the pressure of having to deliver results measurable in two- or three-year timeframes. Only then will we demonstrate the trust we have in our partners and be able to amplify their impact.”
The fourth factor conspiring to inhibit collaboration in philanthropy is good-old-fashioned ego. Many foundation leaders pointed to this in our research. One CEO cited a mentality of, “I want you to collaborate with me, but I don’t want to collaborate with you.”
We hear endless talk of leadership, leverage, “punching above our weight,” and “influencing other funders.” But as Barbara Kellerman, professor of public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has argued, sometimes what we need is good followership.
And here’s the thing: Good collaboration among funders and with grantees—the kind that overcomes these four barriers—can and does happen. The Civil Marriage Collaborative, in which a group of funders pooled $153 million over 11 years to push for marriage equality, is a stunning example. But there are also lesser-known success stories, like the informal alliance among six education funders in California that helped change the state’s education finance system in 2013 to make it more equitable. Many other collaborative efforts are playing out now in areas from homelessness to climate change.
Collaborative work takes time, and requires patience. Ultimately, overcoming the barriers to collaboration is about leadership—a conception of leadership that is less command and control, more counsel and cajole.
When I think of the most effective foundation leaders I see—those who are playing a central role in an aligned effort of many to get something important done—I am struck by how many of them are relatively low-profile. Some of them are downright shy, eschewing the spotlight.
But they know how to bring people together and create the conditions for shared progress. And they know that a single philanthropic institution, acting alone, rarely accomplishes anything of real consequence.