Improving Funder Collaborations Through Stakeholder Feedback

Alina Tomeh

The success of a partnership depends on more than its collective capital, issue expertise, or institutional efficacy. Take the Mars Climate Orbiter for example: a $125M satellite burned on Mars’ surface because – if you can believe it – NASA was calculating in meters and Lockheed Martin was calculating in miles. Managing between institutions comes with unique challenges, making effective coordination mission critical.

Collaboration is increasing in philanthropy. Sixty percent of foundation CEOs believe that structured collaborations, with other foundations or broader stakeholders, are key to generating higher levels of impact. [1] After 2016’s election, nearly half reported increasing their emphasis on partnerships with other funders.[2]

That’s why, during CEP’s “Innovation Week” — a week of staff time designated to pursue ideas that would strengthen our work — I led a team of five colleagues, across CEP’s various teams, to build on CEP’s past work supporting donor collaboratives and to deepen our understanding of the components of their success. The extensive case studies and emerging research are clear: effectively coordinating among institutions requires not only appropriate governance structures, processes, and resources to meet a shared objective, but constant coordination to ensure alignment for all stakeholders. In short, that means proactive, transparent feedback loops between funder partners and their grantees.

CEP has direct experience systematically analyzing feedback for funder collaboratives, like Co-Impact, to help them hone their internal processes and grantee management for greater impact. We’d love to talk with other funder collaborations interested in incorporating systematic feedback into their efforts – from partners in the collaborative to their applicants and grantees.

Effectively Managing Partnerships: Harder than Rocket Science?

Before starting to work on the Mars Climate Orbiter, NASA and Lockheed Martin had a contract outlining the teams’ roles, processes, timeline, and — yes — the units of measurement they would use.

A report investigating the cause of the error found issues with those processes: staff members had attempted to raise immediate concerns by email, but because they did not follow the designated reporting system, it “slipp[ed] through the cracks.”[3] Further communications issues followed: each party operated on incorrect assumptions about the other’s knowledge, updates were not relayed to the full team, and staff could not communicate directly with each other. Communication challenges were compounded by resourcing — staff were not adequately trained and there were insufficient staff designated to manage the project’s evolving needs.

In other words, the project failed not because of the complex rocket science, but complex partnership management.

It’s not any easier for funder collaboratives working on complex societal issues. One-third of foundation CEOs cite challenges with — or lack of — partnerships as a barrier to the foundation’s ability to make progress on its goals.  [4]

When working well, though, the impact can be profound. The Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC), for example, was a coordinated, decade-long effort of 14 funders who aligned $153 million for marriage equality. CMC’s efforts — sustained grassroots organizing and legal campaigns, conducting and applying research on how to effectively communicate values across divides, and reiterating its strategy and grantmaking approach to fit the movement’s evolving and localized needs — played a critical role in expanding civil liberties and shifting cultural attitudes towards minorities.[5]

Funder Collaboration Structures Vary, but Face Common Challenges for Funders and Their Grantees

Like individual foundations, philanthropic collaborations vary widely in governance and financing structures, size, and type. Some partnerships create and fund an independent organization with its own staff. For others, funding, decision-making, and coordinating responsibilities can be driven by a convening organization, shared equally between funding partners, or tiered between partners at different levels of engagement.

Despite variations in structure, research indicates that all philanthropic collaborations face core management challenges: agreeing on goals, priorities, and desired roles; creating realistic timelines and milestones; enforcing accountability; fostering mutual trust and support; navigating internal power dynamics; establishing strong leadership and adequate resourcing; and generating buy-in from grantees and beneficiaries.

Yet, sufficient alignment to move forward is critical. In a reflection from ClimateWorks Foundation founder and CEO Hal Harvey, he said that a lack of alignment between “perceptions and expectations of staff, funders, and other stakeholders… led to inefficient use of resources… took staff time away from the core task… staff departures and the restructuring of CWF.”[6]

Grantees can be impacted by the complexities of partnerships as well. In a recent Bridgespan study, a third of grantees felt an increased burden from working with a foundation partnership as compared to an individual funder.[7]

What to do to avoid these pitfalls? Research on funder collaboratives identifies evaluative health checks as a key best practice. These assessments highlight where internal misalignment is undermining impact and bypasses power dynamics to collect candid stakeholder feedback that is critical to improvements.

CEP’s Expanding Work on Collaboration Effectiveness

CEP’s experience mirrors this broader research. For over two decades, CEP has collected, analyzed, and relayed stakeholder feedback to improve funder effectiveness. According to a recent third-party survey, 89 percent of CEP’s GPR clients, 92 percent of DPR clients, and 83 percent of SPR clients, report making “some” or “significant” change in at least one foundation function area as a result of our assessment engagement. The problems that funder collaboratives are facing will not be solved alone.

CEP’s Advisory Services has already created customized engagements to help partnerships assess the current effectiveness of their internal and grantee management, establish a baseline that can monitor changes over time, and make meaningful suggestions for improvement on the collaboration’s communications, processes, and grantee engagement. If you’d like to learn more, please reach out to Mena Boyadzhiev, Manager, Assessment and Advisory Services. We look forward to talking with you about what you’d like to learn and how we can provide meaningful data and insights to meet your goals.

Alina Tomeh is analyst, assessment and advisory services, at CEP.

[1]  Ellie Buteau, Ph.D., Naomi Orensten, Charis Loh. “The Future of Foundation Philanthropy.” Center for Effective Philanthropy, 2016.

[2]  Phil Buchanan, Ellie Buteau, Ph.D. “Shifting Winds: Foundations Respond to a New Political Context.” Center for Effective Philanthropy, 2017.

[3] “Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Phase I Report.” Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board, November 10, 1999.

[4]  Ellie Buteau, Ph.D., Naomi Orensten, Charis Loh. “The Future of Foundation Philanthropy.” Center for Effective Philanthropy, 2016.

[5] David Lewis. “Hearts & Minds.” Proteus Fund, 2015.

[6] “ClimateWorks Foundation: Lessons in Leadership and Learning,” Hewlett, 2016.

[7] Alison Powell, Susan Ditkoff. “Are Funder Collaboratives Valuable?” Bridgespan, 2019.

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