How Collaboration Can Help Foundations Achieve Their Policy Goals

Kate Gehling

Foundation leaders believe philanthropic collaboration is important to achieving their goals. Resources abound on this topic (see Bridgespan and GrantCraft for guides to philanthropic collaboration and collaborative advocacy, respectively). In CEP’s own research, we find that 59 percent of foundation CEOs identify “collaborating with one another” as an important strategy for increasing foundations’ impact over the next few decades.

Especially now, numerous funders have combined efforts in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Grantmakers in Health, for example, has created an e-forum for peer funders to connect and collaborate by sharing strategies and news related to COVID-19. Other foundations are pooling funds to address the negative impact of the pandemic on nonprofit organizations, such as a philanthropic collaborative led by funders in Ohio and another in the Greater Baltimore area.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that when it comes to public policy efforts, foundation leaders believe that collaboration is particularly important. CEP’s recently released report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, finds that 80 percent of surveyed foundation CEOs engage in collaborative efforts when seeking to influence public policy. In fact, two-thirds of CEOs say that collaborative policy efforts are extremely important for their foundation to be able to achieve its goals.

In addition to our survey of 214 foundation CEOs, for this study we also conducted in-depth interviews with leaders from 43 foundations to learn more about their policy efforts. In these interviews, we heard a number of helpful examples of funder collaboration that we could not fit into the report, but believe can be valuable to funders thinking about their own policy efforts. We hope that these examples can inform learning and more effective policy collaborations.

Why foundations engage in collaborative policy efforts

Our interviews with foundation leaders revealed several reasons why foundations engage in collaborative efforts to influence policy.

Foundation CEOs most frequently see collaboration as a way to increase their impact. (Eighty-four percent of interviewees said that their foundation collaborates in order to increase its impact or better leverage its dollars and voice to influence public policy.) Collaborations can increase available financial resources for an effort. As the leader of one smaller foundation told us, “We only have so much money. We have larger impact by partnering with foundations that are much larger and have much bigger pockets.”

Collaborations also build broad support and wield more power that expands the reach of a policy effort to new audiences and networks. For this reason, some foundation CEOs recommend “building broad coalitions across party lines,” whereas others suggest that funders “collaborate with other like-minded organizations.”

Collaborations also facilitate peer learning and knowledge sharing that results in better practice. Forty-eight percent of interviewees told us that their foundation engages in collaborations in order to share knowledge and expertise or learn from others’ experiences and perspectives about policy issues. “[Through] our collaborations with funders that have more experience, we learn a lot and reach out to them for advice and guidance,” one leader says. Others say that collaborative partners with greater resources and staff can inform them on policy issues and approaches. Such partnerships have helped one CEO of a smaller foundation better understand the efficacy of different advocacy approaches:

“[Our foundation partners] have more resources and more staff to do landscape analysis, which is very helpful. It’s a really good way for us to get multiple perspectives on the effectiveness of different approaches in organizing work. We depend on our partners to get more information about [grantees and their approaches].”

Finally, collaboration enables alignment of strategies and messaging about policy issues, 35 percent of interviewees told us. As one foundation leader says, “We want to be the wind at their back and we want them to be the wind at our back.”

How — and with whom — foundations engage in policy collaborations

Foundation CEOs describe a diversity of collaborative structures and partners. In addition to supporting the policy efforts of their grantees, they also participate in multi-sector collaborative efforts and collaborate with other funders and government stakeholders. Eighty-five percent of interviewees told us their foundation collaborates with other funders, and 61 percent said their foundation collaborates with the government.

Collaboration with other funders

As described in Policy Influence, foundations most frequently collaborate and coordinate with others in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Collaboration among funders is frequently formal, such as participating in co-funding initiatives or efforts led by issue-based foundation affinity groups and regional foundation associations that pool money and align policy strategies. Some foundations also collaborate informally — signing letters to advocate for public policies, informally aligning grantmaking, coordinating messaging, or sharing expertise and knowledge.

One leader described a collaboration between their community foundation and a public charity foundation to advocate for a piece of health-related legislation. Combining the community foundation’s resources with the other foundation’s deep health expertise led to an effective partnership, as the two foundations coordinated their funding and lobbyists’ messaging. The legislation passed and the two foundations provided funding to match that of the government. By working together, the leader of the community foundation says that both funders were able to both put their “best foot forward.”

Collaboration and relationship building with government stakeholders

Since changing government policy is often the intended outcome of public policy efforts, many foundation leaders say that coordination and collaboration with the government itself is another important way for them to achieve their policy goals.

For example, one foundation CEO highlights a city-wide partnership between their foundation and the Mayor’s Office, Police Department, and District Attorney’s Office to implement a criminal justice model aimed at reducing homicides in their city. The foundation brought together the government stakeholders, funded the partnership, and helped develop a plan which, ultimately, contributed to a reduction in homicide rates.

More commonly, foundation leaders describe longer-term commitments to engaging with government stakeholders on policy issues. For most leaders, “relationships are paramount.” Of survey respondents who collaborate or engage in activities outside grantmaking, 79 percent say their foundation develops and maintains relationships with elected officials. Developing strong relationships with government officials, elected or otherwise, enables foundations to assess the political feasibility of their goals and have a seat at the table in important discussions about government policy.

For instance, one leader’s foundation regularly meets with state legislators, “compares notes about constituents’ wants and needs,” and connects legislators to relevant research already produced by the foundation’s partners or grantees. Another CEO describes how their foundation and several state agencies support each other’s workforce development efforts. As a part of these efforts, the foundation helps the state agencies build their data capacities and establish common approaches to address the issue.

Multi-sector policy collaboration

Foundation leaders also emphasize the importance of multi-sector partnerships. As one leader puts it, “partnerships are key across organizations and sectors.” Among the foundations whose leaders we interviewed, one foundation works in coalition with its state Department of Health, state university, local business leaders, and other funders to engage in community building through a social determinants of health framework. Another built a state-wide collaboration between funders, realtors, businesspeople, public housing officials, and health advocates to increase affordable housing.

Some funders highlight their role as convener of cross-sector stakeholders. For example, one leader describes such a convening between stakeholders in a particular issue area:

“We fund this convening because we think having all of those organizations in the same room is of incredible value. What we don’t want to have happen is have the groups fight against each other and we all lose. If nothing else, you find out who’s doing what. It has been effective at keeping open channels of communication.”

Go forth and collaborate!

These examples underscore the importance of philanthropic collaboration to achieving policy goals. After all, “working with others” — including grantees, other foundations, and policymakers — is survey respondents’ top recommendation to foundations seeking to influence public policy.

Policy collaboration can take many different structures with different partners, but the overall lesson from foundation leaders is clear: collaboration helps foundations to increase their impact on policy issues, ultimately better helping those they seek to serve.

How has collaboration helped your foundation achieve its policy goals? We welcome you to share your own experiences with or examples of collaborative policy efforts in the comments.

For more, download Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why here.

Kate Gehling is an analyst, research, at CEP.

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