Charting a New Course for a Funder Collaborative

Meera Mani and Janet Froetscher

In 2014, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation assembled 12 of the country’s leading funders focused on early childhood development into a new collaborative. We set sail on our journey with a lofty goal: to move beyond our separate, funder-by-funder pursuit of incremental approaches to boost kindergarten readiness for all children, and instead, invest collectively in a few big ideas — ideas that were showing promise but had not yet been taken to scale.

Despite the longstanding relationships and deep trust that brought these funders together, after two years of meetings, we found ourselves stalled. We had launched the collaborative after concluding we couldn’t count on the public sector to simply adopt our individual organizations’ recommendations for improvements to early childhood policy and practice. We knew we had to work together on models or practices that could translate into widespread impact. Yet we still had not chosen which investments to pursue, nor the steps necessary to bring our plans to fruition. We weren’t sure how to proceed. One of us, Meera, bluntly asked the group at this pivotal moment, “Should we stop meeting?”

Fast forward 18 months from then, and we have pooled $26 million to pursue high-potential bets in two areas: 1. strengthening the early childhood workforce of teachers and other professional caregivers; and 2. changing the standard of care in pediatric well child visits to improve child social emotional outcomes. We have collectively invested much more in these strategies than any one of us would have on our own. Some of our members chose not to invest in either the workforce or pediatric initiatives, as these investments represented too great a departure from their individual strategies and grantmaking approaches. Yet they still wanted to be at the table, which expanded to include new partners, and the full group continues to work on identifying additional areas for collaboration.

How did we get unstuck and move forward on a new, faster, and ultimately productive course? Looking back, we see an example of a collaborative continuously evolving its methods to achieve its original overarching goal. This story is told in a recent case study published by the Bridgespan Group.

Meera’s simple question helped prompt our collaborative to reassess and alter course. Until that point, our focus was mainly on sharing and learning from one another’s work, building stronger relationships and trust, and identifying ideas where we might find common ground. Within two days of her question, through a series of follow-up conversations, most of the participants in the group affirmed that they wanted to move forward, but vowed to focus exclusively on developing specific investment concepts — and to not meet again without concrete proposals on the table.

Focusing on specific concepts to bring effective practice to scale meant someone had to take the lead to create working drafts for the group. Two funders volunteered for this role. Both were knowledgeable about the specific areas they were taking on for the collaborative, willing to spend the time needed to put a draft investment concept on paper, and eager to solicit and incorporate a wide range of feedback from other funders. Importantly, both foundations were planning to make their own investments in one of the areas, yet neither believed that their investment alone would create the desired impact at scale.

Given the participants’ busy schedules and respective organizational priorities, having trusted advisers on board to keep the ship on course was also critical to the success of the collaborative. From the start, Bridgespan had supported the collaborative’s work by coordinating agendas, facilitating meetings, developing background materials, and proposing investment ideas to the full group. We moved away from a large-group format that favored the expression of individual funder points of view and towards more cohesive smaller groups that fostered real discussions in the two areas the collaborative decided to support. Bridgespan took on staffing the pediatrics working group in its first year of work, helping to develop its investment proposal and launch the initiative’s first grants. It also acted as a credible, honest broker among the funders, ensuring that all points of view were represented — and holding us accountable throughout the process.

With our two funder “champions” at the helm — backed by staff — the group’s dynamics shifted from contemplation to action, and the work of nailing down the investment strategy moved forward with urgency. The teams brought in outside researchers and practitioners for consultation, hashed out agreement on a set of outcomes, zeroed in on specific investment ideas, and solicited feedback from the full group on the investment proposals.

Once the proposals were approved, the group spent months fleshing out their priorities; identifying potential grantees; developing written agreements; and setting up decision-making, governance, and financial management processes. At each stage of the process, the champions set up clear “go/no-go” decision points for their team members, requiring them to reaffirm their commitment to the investments and their involvement in the grantmaking process — commitments that continually reenergized the collaborative’s work and forward progress.

This case study is not meant to be a map for every funder collaborative. Rather, it’s an account of how one collaborative navigated working together to achieve its co-investment goals.

Any of the essential steps that the early childhood collaborative took mirror those of other effective funder collaboratives: setting a goal, gathering the right people, learning together, identifying champions, building an infrastructure, and ultimately taking action.  While not all collaboratives will have to face the kind of live-or-die moment we did, most will want to ask themselves now and again if they are on track toward reaching their goals — and if not, how they can make the needed course corrections. In sharing our story, we hope to help other funders chart their own course for successful collaborations.

Meera Mani is director of the Children, Families, and Communities (CFC) Program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Janet Froetscher is president of the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation.

collaboration, foundations, strategy
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