The field of philanthropy encompasses tens of thousands of funding institutions, as well as several hundred philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) and funder collaboratives. National and regional PSOs—such as Grantmakers in the Arts, Southern California Grantmakers, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations—support learning and networking around specific issue and geographic areas, populations, or practices. Funder collaboratives, such as the immigrant rights-focused Four Freedoms Fund, help grantmakers align around specific priorities.
Funders created these PSOs and funder collaboratives. Yet, in conference rooms, ballrooms, and even restrooms, we have heard them question the value of their ongoing support for these entities: Why do we keep creating new affinity groups focused on ever-narrower priorities? What point does my regional association serve beyond hosting a pricy annual meeting I’m too busy to attend anyway? Funder collaboratives sound like a great idea, but are they really worth my time and the overhead? Foundations cranked up the volume on these questions in the lean years immediately following the Great Recession.
In response, many PSOs and funder collaboratives have expended tremendous effort over the past decade defining, articulating, and defending their value proposition to their members and the broader sector. One PSO went as far as creating a multi-page toolkit to help staff make the case for attending its annual meeting. Nonetheless, while many grantmakers were questioning the value of supporting PSOs and funder collaboratives, they were simultaneously embracing collective impact and other strategies to encourage learning and collaboration among their grantees.
These contradictory trends made our recent research, which revealed that funders quickly renewed their appreciation for PSOs and funder collaboratives directly after the controversial 2016 presidential election, all the more surprising. In fact, PSOs and funder collaboratives were the “first call” for many funders after election night; funders felt they were essential to enabling the grantmaking community as a whole to respond and adapt in ways that are often challenging for individual institutions.
Of course, ours isn’t the first research seeking to understand how philanthropy is responding to America’s new political environment. But while other reports and news stories have focused on how individual institutions are reacting, our goal was to develop an initial assessment of the new administration’s impact on the broader philanthropic sector. To do so, we sought out leaders of PSOs and funder collaboratives, who represent and regularly engage with thousands of grantmakers of all types, sizes, and areas of focus, including most of the nations’ largest and most influential funders. We also set out to learn whether responses differed by issue or identity group priorities. Our interviews with nearly 30 of these leaders provided a close-up view of how many foundations are responding, as well as a widescreen view on the implications of these actions across an array of issue areas.
Here’s a look at three ways PSOs and funder collaboratives have demonstrated their value to funders over the past year:
1. Accelerating action. Most of the PSO and funder collaborative leaders we interviewed began coordinating calls, webinars, and other knowledge-sharing opportunities immediately after the election. As one leader remarked, “Members felt blindsided and unclear about what to do and needed a space to share.” These early activities often focused on sharing initial reactions to the election and speculating about the impact of possible policy changes on their current grantmaking priorities. For example, Human Rights Funders Network organized a special, post-election strategy-sharing call within one week of the election. Nearly 150 participants dialed in, compared to the average 30.
Many PSOs and funder collaboratives have gone well beyond the role of convener. Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), for example, has been at the forefront of coordinating the funding community’s response to the new administration’s immigration policies. GCIR has facilitated joint learning sessions for its members and in partnership with other PSOs, interviewed funders and funder collaboratives to understand how they’re responding, assisted funders in strategy development and providing technical assistance, and developed a joint funder statement (see “Enabling collective voices” below), among other activities. Other organizations have mapped funder and grantee relationships, enabling grantmakers to quickly identify funding opportunities in areas outside their primary focus that may be affected by policy changes. Still others have served as a bridge between local and regional community organizations and leaders and national funders, using their knowledge and relationships to bring potential funders up to speed on local funding opportunities.
2. Aligning support. PSOs and funder collaboratives provide ready-made structures for grantmakers to coordinate in ways that otherwise might not be possible. Several PSO and funder collaborative leaders identified increased interest among their funder members in pooling grantmaking, especially in politically sensitive areas or areas that fall outside their previously established priorities. This enables funders to benefit from the expertise and grantmaking strategies already developed by funder collaboratives. For example, the Proteus Fund’s Security & Rights Collaborative, which focuses on countering Muslim, Arab, and South Asian discrimination and bigotry, has seen a surge in support from both new and existing donors. This has enabled the organization to make larger grants to existing grantees and also conduct a landscape analysis that it has used to identify new priorities and attract additional pooled grantmaker support. As one funder collaborative leader observed, in the new political environment “funders got over their fear of the issue.”
Funder collaboratives have been uniquely helpful to grantmakers who want to offer timely support for priorities outside of their current focus areas. Initiatives related to democratic values are another area seeing a bump. New funders, large and small, are joining the State Infrastructure Fund, which engages historically underrepresented voters and protects their voting rights, and the Four Freedoms Fund, which works toward the full integration of immigrants in US democracy. “Collaborative funds are an easy way [for organizations] to enter a field they don’t know much about,” a leader involved in these efforts said. These groups can also engage in activities that individual institutions may be unable or unwilling to support, such as capacity building, convening, community organizing, lobbying, and political work through 501(c)(4) structures.
3. Enabling collective voices. Funders have long wrestled with whether, when, and how to make use of their “institutional voice” to advance an agenda. The current political environment has multiplied these deliberations and moved more funders to consider taking a public stance. “It’s the number one thing we’ve been hearing from [foundation] leaders,” one PSO leader said. But not all funders are willing to taking a public stance alone. To display “strength in numbers,” a few PSOs have taken the lead in crafting and coordinating shared funder statements. Many funders told us they were more willing to lend their name to a public position when joined by peers. For example, more than 200 funders signed on to GCIR’s Joint Foundation Statement on Immigration—the majority non-members. Meanwhile, GCIR has also experienced a substantial upsurge in unsolicited new members.
Relationships are the core of philanthropy. With great respect for the importance of strategy assessments, evaluation frameworks, and tools and resources others develop for them, foundations typically turn to one another first to assess needs and make meaning of their challenges. Recent research funded by the Hewlett Foundation reinforced this point, finding what many of us intuitively knew: According to research prepared by Harder+Company and EDGE Research to understand how foundations access and use knowledge, “[Foundations] rely on their peers and colleagues, as opposed to particular organizations or publications, both as their most trusted knowledge sources and as their preferred means to gather knowledge.”
But simply putting two funders into a room and providing them with resources for learning and collaboration isn’t sufficient to create a productive environment. As a recent article on the value of networks concluded, “The single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants.”
PSOs and funder collaboratives are in the business of facilitating the development of trust among funders. They bring grantmakers together on a regular basis around mutual interests and offer structured and informal opportunities for shared learning, discussion, and collaboration that serve to build ongoing relationships of trust. These trust-based relationships, and the PSOs and funder collaboratives that facilitate them, are helping philanthropy adapt to politically challenging times.