Five Things I Learned From Helping Set Up a Funder Collaborative

Ipshita Sinha

The nature of philanthropy as we know it is changing. It has evolved from direct aid to bespoke outcome-linked programs to a higher systems change aspiration. The nature of philanthropy is also – undeniably – in flux, as this shift in aspirations brings with it a shift in operating models. Recognizing that systems are complex beasts with many interlinkages and leverage points for change, philanthropies are learning that it is futile to travel the systems’ change journey alone. And thus, the power of collaboration is being embraced like never before.

Funder collectives are gaining momentum around the world. From global collaboratives that support new economic thinking and acting, such as the Partners for a New Economy (P4NE), to geography specific initiatives, such as the India Climate Collaborative, funders are recognizing that collective action is the only path to overcoming climate change. Likewise, the pandemic necessitated philanthropies coming together as well. India saw Samhita-Collective Good Foundation (CGF), USAID, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), and Omidyar Network India collaborate to launch a $6.85 million blended finance facility called REVIVE. REVIVE provides accessible and affordable capital in the form of grants to restore livelihoods lost to Covid-19.

Philanthropies are embracing the fact that only by combining their forces together are they able to change systems and narratives. It is now near universally accepted that collaboratives can help leapfrog beyond the incremental change that individual funders achieve.

One such collaborative is Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Established in 2019, FORGE is the product of philanthropic funders wanting to channel their collective resources to work at the cross-section of building rights-based movements and creating a global economy. They envision the latter as one that works for both people and the planet, shaped by and accountable to worker and community-led movements.

FORGE’s power of diversity is reflected in its Covid-19 response grants. Through pooled funding from its nine founding members – Fundacion Avina, Ford Foundation, Humanity United, Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundations, SAGE Fund, True Costs Initiative, Wallace Global Fund and Wellspring Philanthropic Fund – FORGE is able to support garment worker collectives in Bangladesh, hospitality worker collectives in Chile, and domestic worker forums in the Philippines. Through these same response grants, FORGE is able to support debt justice movements across Asia and Latin America. The power of the collective allowed FORGE to act quickly in response to an urgent challenge and to consider the needs of the most vulnerable in the most flexible manner.

I was grateful to spend the past six months embedded within FORGE, working to support its formation. In my time with FORGE, I curated learning sessions for the collective and codified lessons from these sessions into strategy, created opportunities for aligned grantmaking among the funders, and dabbled in defining the governance structure of the collective itself.

Here’s what I learned on what it takes to build a successful collaborative:

  1. We’re here to learn; let go of your strategies: We’ve all been through rigorous strategy development sessions in our respective organizations. They are extensive and elongated processes – by the end of it, we are married to them. But your presence in the collaborative should be to unlearn and learn anew, so do not hold your ToCs tight, be open to being proved wrong. Let go.
  2. Get your hands dirty: Learning or aligning cannot be a passive activity. Do not be the spectator who watches the show – you will miss out on the fun. Get in the mix. This is your project now – the collaborative is as good as YOU are willing to make it.
  3. Play up your strengths: Some members are weavers, some are worker ants, some are dreamers. A collaborative has space for all. Find your niche and declare it to the group. A collective works best when everyone steps up to the plate.
  4. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together: A collective will only go far when everyone travels together. Do not be in the quest for speed and agility – you can achieve that in your respective funds. A collaborative is a melting pot that needs time to marinate. Give it time and space to imbibe everyone’s spice and develop its unique gravy.
  5. Have fun but speak up as well: We are humans first, our organizations later. Have fun in the process, but do not defer to politeness. Healthy conflicts make the collaborative stronger. Draw out dissenting views, call out the colleagues who are holding themselves back. All voices are valid.

In summary, for a funder collective to meet its aspiration of systems change and crafting narratives that shift the existing paradigms, there needs to be a harmony of goals and purpose. Members of a successful funder collaborative are no different than singers in a choir who all sing from a common song sheet, albeit in their unique notes and at all octaves.

Those considering setting up or joining a funder collaborative, know that it will be a long journey with its peaks and troughs, but you will gain many new friends to share it with. To ensure that the harmony of these collaboratives come together, one needs to bring ingenuity, enthusiasm, joy, and patience. The rest will fall in place. 

Ipshita Sinha is a program manager at Laudes Foundation where her work focuses on the intersection of business and human rights. Follow Ipshita on Twitter at @Ipshita_Sinha and Laudes Foundation at @Laudes_Fdn.

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