At a recent gathering of foundation and corporate fundraising professionals, Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer shared his perspectives on philanthropy. His remarks really struck a chord with me; they were frank and incisive, and pointed out some structural issues that relate to an initiative we are working on with colleagues from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Foundation Center, and the Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support network.

Our group conceived this initiative (currently called the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy) over the last half-year or so to do two things: 1) help philanthropy better understand the opportunities for engaging in global development goal processes, and 2) help governments and the UN system understand the added value of philanthropy’s engagement. It will also move forward what Kramer calls “a common vocabulary”—in other words, a common information base so that foundations and others involved in international development can see the extent to which their efforts are complementing each other in contributing to the global development agenda. So far, it has been a challenge to convince foundations to invest in it; many think it is a good idea, but few are actively committing financial resources. It occurred to me that if we came up with a more eponymous title, we might attract natural allies faster. But after hearing Kramer’s comments, it dawned on me that there is much more to it than that.

He put it bluntly: There are enormous problems with collaboration within philanthropy—it is “really, really difficult.” He pointed out that this derives in part from the professionalization of our sector over the past few decades. We have gotten much better at developing theories of change for our grantmaking and programmatic portfolios, and I believe on balance this is good. This is what good NGOs do already—build consensus internally on their archetype of change, and then deploy their (usually) scarce resources accordingly. But as each foundation works to develop and test its own strategies for change, it rarely matches with those of other foundations—and there is precious little incentive to combine resources to conserve funds within the sector.

A related challenge is coordinating decision-making. Kramer acknowledged that most foundations probably have four layers of decision-making: the individual program officer, a program director or equivalent, the CEO, and the board of trustees. In most cases, they must all buy in to programmatic efforts before making grants, and once committed to a theory of change and portfolio direction, it is very hard to change it or make exceptions. If an idea introduced by another foundation doesn’t quite fit, individuals are reluctant to override (if they are more senior) or challenge (if they are more junior) their colleagues. A lucky coincidence is when two foundations’ strategies align well for shared purpose—but this isn’t common.

Kramer borrowed a term from international relations to explain why this is particularly challenging for philanthropy—diffuse reciprocity (versus traditional reciprocity), a concept that he discussed in an April 2014 SSIR blog. Reciprocal behavior amongst nation-states or institutions happens in situations where partners exchange items of more or less equivalent value, and where the sequence of action and the rights and obligations are clear. But in the case of diffuse reciprocity, there is no obvious equivalence nor mandated sequencing of steps, and the process more likely involves a group of actors not just two. Indeed, when there is a close relationship between program officers or presidents of different foundations, there may be an informal agreement on shared support, but it is usually for modest, one-off grants rather than complex partnerships. There are no immediate rewards for deeper partnerships but only, as academic Robert Keohane notes, good overall results for the whole group.

In our own effort, the Hilton and Ford Foundations are attempting to bring together foundations that share a common belief in philanthropy concerting more of our global grantmaking toward agreed global goals. Our assumption is if we do this at the national and global levels vis-à-vis the Post-2015 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, we will have a more positive impact on development outcomes. Moreover, the convergence of action around shared vision, mission, and objectives can leverage our individual and collective resources and benefits. But there is no immediate return on investment, and the growing emphasis by foundations on attribution (to the funder), rather than contribution, sometimes has the perverse effect of separating, rather than converging, development efforts.

Our growing group of partners has an inside joke that we dare not speak of coordination, let alone the contentious term alignment. What we need to do instead, taking a page from Kramer, is find a way to nurture that norm of diffuse reciprocity: Get others to contribute to this effort “without demanding or expecting an immediate payback or return, knowing that you and others will do the same later and that we’ll all be better off in the long run as a result.” To be sure, there are valid questions about the specifics of this effort. UNDP and the UN system is a bureaucratic partner; governments do not necessarily endorse our civil society grantees’ interests; and as the Institute for Development Studies’ respected development guru Robert Chambers pointed out in a UN meeting recently, inclusive partnerships and collaboration have time costs, not just benefits.

Nevertheless, the value of philanthropic collaboration on global development goals has been proven time and again—in the fields of health, agricultural innovation, HIV/AIDS, community-based natural resource management, and urban climate change resilience, to name but a few. So here is an offer: If you want to try new approaches to collaboration on the Sustainable Development Goals and put diffuse reciprocity in action by putting some skin in the game, get in touch as our circle widens.