The Crucial Role Collaboratives Can Play for New Philanthropies

Pam Foster

Imagine the following scenario: an entrepreneur has achieved tremendous success and, finding herself a billionaire, is motivated to give back to help change the world. She contributes billions to endow a new foundation focused on a problem that she feels certain is solvable. She hires staff and strategy consultants, talks to trusted advisors, and gets to work, with minimum distribution requirements looming almost immediately. Pretty soon, the entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist acknowledges that this is hard work. The foundation undergoes further strategy development.

It’s not hard to imagine, is it? We hear stories and see the statistics telling us of new foundations launched and of ever-growing annual philanthropic giving. We read critiques arguing that instead of philanthropy, we need to solve the income inequality that enabled the wealth to accumulate in the first place. Staff of new and established foundations witness the cycle of strategy evolution through internal task forces and the use of strategy consultants. And we see stories of successes and (less frequently) failures in philanthropy.

I won’t enter the fray on the issue of wealth disparity and the critiques of philanthropy here. Suffice it to say that I both agree that wealth disparity is a huge issue in the U.S., and I believe in the power of philanthropy to effect positive change in the world.

So, taking as a given that we will continue to see growth in philanthropy — higher endowments and new philanthropies are emerging every year — what is a new would-be philanthropist or executive of a new foundation to do?

A new research report from CEP, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust in connection with its 10-year anniversary and titled Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations, offers collective guidance gathered from leaders who have walked the path of starting a new foundation in recent decades. Among the recommendations of these leaders for those in the early stages of their philanthropic work: Be bold. Hire staff with aligned expectations. Learn from others. Be humble.

What’s one way to check all of those boxes at once? Join a collaborative.

The growing field of collaborative philanthropy offers a range of options for joining forces with other philanthropists to align funding (as well as other resources and expertise) toward a common goal — either by pooling funds or committing to separately fund efforts selected by the group.

So, how can collaboratives help new philanthropies follow the guidance of those who came before them?

On being bold? Check.

The research suggests that the early stages of a new philanthropy offer an interesting time to think boldly about the future. The report’s authors write, “Risk-taking in philanthropy, especially when things do not go according to plan, is about having the ensuing insight that failure is not inherently bad but rather an opportunity for learning and improvement.”

Collaboratives offer a way to have your cake and eat it too, and there are some incredible collaboratives in our sector right now that are placing big bets. The Audacious Project is supporting social entrepreneurs’ ideas that have “the potential to create change at thrilling scale.” The END Fund is working to end the most common neglected tropical diseases. Blue Meridian Partners has pooled over $1.7 billion and invested in efforts to address significant social problems confronting young people and families in poverty. And at Co-Impact, where I am currently serving as chief operating officer, we’re supporting systems change efforts to improve the lives of millions by advancing education, improving people’s health, and providing economic opportunity in low- and middle-income countries around the world.

Funding these kinds of efforts at large scale through a collaborative allows a philanthropist to be bold — and also to spread the risk. As Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors succinctly explains in its guide to collaborative giving: “With access to the wisdom of other donors, a wider network of advisors, and other shared resources, collaboration can mitigate the risks of striking out on your own or duplicating efforts while you may still be learning about a specific sector or cause.”

On hiring staff with aligned expectations? Check.

Critical to the success of any start-up is building the right team. Like any organization, a new philanthropic organization will go through the “forming – storming – norming” stages of development, and it can be hard to discern the organizational structure or the skills and expertise needed until the strategy is clear. Joining a staffed collaborative could offer someone who is still in the forming or norming stages of her own philanthropy to observe how different kinds of expertise or approaches could be an asset, without taking on the risk of hiring before she’s ready.

On learning from others? Check.

A collaboration in which philanthropists come together around a table to agree on priorities and discuss funding opportunities offers a tremendous opportunity for learning. Closed-door sessions working toward shared objectives offer a safe space for sharing not just what worked well but also what failed, in ways that may not reach more public domains. A newer (or even well-established) philanthropy professional approaching these sessions with an eagerness to learn is likely to gain more insights than through hours of discussions of abstract concepts.

On humility? Check.

A person can’t really declare, “I am humble.” If they truly are humble, they’ll recoil at the prospect. And if they’re false in their claims, it will soon be evident that they have confused humility with hubris. At Co-Impact, we talk about having a “beginner’s mindset,” where we encourage each other and the philanthropists in our collaborative, no matter how long we’ve been in this game or how well respected we may already be, to assume that we have much to learn — from each other, from those outside our collaborative, and from our program partners. For a collaboration to work, the philanthropists and foundation personnel coming together must agree to put egos aside.

Participating in collaborative philanthropy could be just one of many activities in the early days of a new philanthropy, or it could be done in lieu of creating a new organization. Either way, it’s a great head start to building the strategy and skills to achieve real impact more quickly and effectively. And for more experienced philanthropists, collaborations offer tremendous opportunities to exchange with peers, and in particular could be especially useful in the context of strategic shifts in issue areas or geographies.

For philanthropies both new and old, joining an existing collaborative or starting a new one can benefit your work for years to come.

Pam Foster is a lawyer and strategic operations specialist with over 20 years of experience in the philanthropic sector. She currently serves as chief operating officer of Co-Impact and is a member of CEP’s advisory board. Follow her on Twitter at @pamfoster31.

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