Big Issue 4: The Embracing of — or Return to — Aligned Action

This post is the fifth in a series of seven excerpting CEP President Phil Buchanan’s new essay, Big Issues, Many Questionswhich explores five pressing issues facing U.S. foundation leaders and boards at this moment in time.

Lately, the position that working in concert with others is essential to impact has been presented as though it is a breakthrough concept. But this should not be (and is not to many) a new insight!

The tuberculosis epidemic 100 years ago in the United States saw foundations working with nonprofits, government agencies, and insurance companies like Metropolitan Life to invest in research and education that helped turn the tide against the deadly disease. The Green Revolution to spur agricultural production was a collaborative effort of funders, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

More recently, foundations partnered in an initiative called the Civil Marriage Collaborative spent $153 million over 11 years to push for marriage equality for gays and lesbians — a remarkably effective effort in a short time span. The collaborative efforts of major foundations on climate change, begun in 2007 by the William and Flora Hewlett, David and Lucile Packard, and McKnight foundations and then restructured and expanded more recently, is another important example of funders uniting to address a pressing and, in this case global, challenge. Earlier in 2016, a group of funders came together to form an effort called Blue Meridian Partners. It aims “to invest at least $1 billion in high-performance nonprofits that are poised to have truly national impact for economically disadvantaged children and youth.”

These are just a few examples.

For the past decade, too much attention was paid to the concept of “unique positioning,” which makes sense for business but not for foundations. Now there seems to be an appreciation of this historical fact: Nothing of real consequence has been accomplished when our toughest societal problems are tackled by a single entity acting alone. In business, you want your strategy to be yours alone. For foundations, if your strategy is yours alone, you will fail. 

People talk about collaboration all the time — it was the theme of one of the first Council on Foundations conferences I attended after taking the job as CEP’s first executive director 15 years ago — but it’s often hollow talk. It’s extremely difficult to align efforts effectively. It requires, as Sylvia Yee of the Haas Jr. Fund has said of marriage equality work, “putting egos aside.” Easy to say, hard to do because so many career incentives encourage the claiming of credit — individual and institutional. We talk of “brand identity” and “leadership” but what is sometimes needed, as Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman has argued, is smart followership.

Working with others in an aligned way to produce results also necessitates more open sharing of information about what does and doesn’t work — including information from foundations’ assessment efforts. CEP’s recently-released research on foundation transparency shows that this is an area where foundation CEOs see a link between transparency and effectiveness but where they also concede they aren’t doing a lot. Foundation leaders and grantees alike want this information, so where is it?

We need to deepen the conversation on transparency in philanthropy that organizations like Foundation Center have helpfully championed, but which has too often focused on what I call “checklist transparency”: sharing 990 PFs on websites, or governance documents, or conflict of interest policies. We need to focus instead on substantive transparency about what works and what doesn’t. It won’t be easy.

Working together in a way that really creates impact requires us to get over ourselves.  We can’t all look good, all the time. We can’t all lead, all the time. We can’t all “punch above our weight.” We can’t always all be the ones “creating leverage” or attracting disproportionate dollars to our ideas. Sometimes the best way to have an impact is to follow somebody else who knows what they’re doing. 

Foundations need to ask themselves:

  • Are our program strategies shared by other funders as well as grantees and other relevant players, and, if not, do we really think we can be successful alone?
  • When should the foundation simply follow others rather than seeking to be seen as a leader?
  • What incentives have been created (intentionally or unintentionally) that work against the kind of collaboration or coordination that is needed to be effective—whether in the way we evaluate and compensate our employees or the way we screen and support grantee organizations?
  • What are we sharing with others about what we are learning about what is and isn’t working? What could we be sharing?
  • How do the foundation’s resources stack up against the scale of the problem and what does that tell us about the need for coordinated action?
  • How can we learn from and work with other foundations toward the achievement of shared goals? How can giving up our power in certain contexts yield greater results?

Next week, I’ll turn to a fifth — and final — big issue for foundations: how to support nonprofits effectively.

Download Big Issues, Many Questions here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @PhilCEP.