Model the Collaboration You Hope to See

You are waking up to your morning fix of coffee and the news before you head into your office to wade your way through a pile of proposals. CNN is reporting on a broken economy, a broken justice system, stymied political process, people protesting and you turn the TV off because it reminds you of something you don’t want to think about.

Our democracy is broken but you feel impotent. After all, you’re just one person at one foundation – what can you do?

But the fact is there is something you can do. With our democracy in crisis, you as a grantmaker, regardless of what issue you focus on, can do a lot to help alleviate the situation.

Let’s pretend your primary focus is funding the arts. Consider your grantee that works to ensure children and families from underserved communities have equal access to the opera. Next, think about this grantee’s past work when the organization collaborated with an education-focused group on ensuring that health outcomes for these same children are not determined by their ZIP codes.

In fact, you encouraged this collaboration – and many such collaborations with your other grantees – because you understand that in the ecosystem of our sector, all issues are interconnected and overlap. At that time, your grantee recognized that the political moment was right to contribute to efforts that would enable healthy children from low-income families to enjoy the opera. Ostensibly, her relationships with her sister organizations give her a sense of possibility because they all realize that they have a shared purpose.

The story needn’t and shouldn’t end here.

Many nonprofits recognize that multi-issue advocacy and organizing are among the most powerful tools to effect lasting changes that break down rigid structural problems in our society. Unfortunately, foundations don’t seem to. And here’s where you can make a difference.

Picture a world in which affinity or infrastructure groups act as intermediaries, connecting foundations of all kinds, including your family foundation, with other foundations that work on seemingly disparate issues.

Suddenly, you realize that your arts funding is connected to environmental funding, which is related to health and education funding. You begin to see how the collaboration among infrastructure groups with different orientations is a model that foundations can use to build their own collective and relational capacity to leverage the limited dollars philanthropy contributes to our sector for significantly higher impact. You understand that even though you will continue funding the arts, health funders and you share the same constituents – you start to see the forest instead of just the one tree you’ve been focused on. You’re doing the kind of collaborative work many foundations encourage their grantees to get involved in.

This alternate universe is possible. Here three steps to help model the collaboration that you so admire in your grantees’ work:

  • Connect with like-minded peers. There may be other foundation staff who are feeling the need to reach to and collaborate with other foundations focused on different issues. Discuss different ways to bring together larger groups of like-minded colleagues.
  • Get your affinity group on board. Discuss your ideas and convince the head of your affinity group that there is great potential to build collective power, leadership and social capital among funders of all stripes – individual donors, community foundations, private foundations and more – across different issues of interests. Suggest ways they can initiate this, such as through combined conferences and other events, and convening regional funders across different infrastructure groups. Offer to take the lead in reaching out to other foundations while he or she works with the heads of other affinity groups.
  • Involve young philanthropists. Younger philanthropists can bring innovative and new ideas to the table so they must be part of this movement building.

If, in addition to these three steps, you support groups that still fit neatly into your portfolio but are engaged in cross-issue work and actively seek out community and grantee input when developing strategy, your impact multiplies because of the new intentionality in how you approach your grantmaking

In less time than you’d think, you are reaching some kind of critical mass and it feels as though you are part of an iterative movement.

So as you think of the news and the day you’re about to have, you smile as you consider the possibilities from the collaboration you helped create and how your foundation is helping rebuild our democracy and strengthening our communities.