The Role of Collaboration in Effective Rural Philanthropy

Bob Reid

Although many foundations continuously seek to expand both the impact and sustainability of the initiatives they sponsor and/or support, limitations in foundations’ financial, intellectual, and relational capital can thwart their ability to realize such objectives.

Many foundations attempt to overcome these limitations through collaborative partnerships with other funders. But foundation-to-foundation collaboration can be challenging and too often fails. And consequences of failed collaboration are not trivial — especially for the individuals and communities that foundations’ work ultimately seeks to benefit.

There are many important issues to consider when preparing for and facilitating foundation-to-foundation collaboration, but planning is too often hindered by a paucity of empirical guidance for navigating the dynamics underlying collaboration. The existing literature offers a variety of theoretical frameworks and recommended strategies for improving foundation collaboration. Unfortunately, too little of this guidance is based upon evidence-based research.

Rural grantmaking is one space in which greater philanthropic collaboration is especially needed. Rural communities receive, on average, only 50 cents for every dollar allocated to urban communities by both the federal government and private philanthropy. In addition to resource deficiency, rural communities are further challenged by unsophisticated leadership and decades of deteriorating civic capacities and infrastructure.

The needs created by rural circumstances often call for more resources than most foundations can alone provide. In this way, resources from multiple foundations are typically needed for achieving scalable and sustainable impact in rural areas — meaning that effective foundation-to-foundation collaboration is essential to overcoming rural challenges. Further, rural funders working together effectively can make an important difference by instilling and bolstering confidence within rural communities.

Grantmaking efforts simply should not fail merely because of ineffective partnerships between foundations. But collaborating among different actors in rural philanthropy can be perplexing, as on-the-ground realities are highly nuanced by community-specific circumstances and severe resource insufficiency.

A new research effort aims to help rural funders navigate these challenges. “Rural Foundation Collaboration: Houston we have a problem,” an article in the International Journal of Community Well-Being, examines the experiences and approaches of 54 foundations in 31 states and the District of Columbia. This research seeks to fill the gap in evidence-based guidance for collaboration in rural philanthropy and offers important empirical insights that can enhance planning for more effective rural grantmaking and foundation-to-foundation collaboration.

The article explores four main questions:

  • Are the experiences of the participants in rural communities consistent with those outlined in the literature?
  • What experiences have non-local foundations had with place-based funders?
  • What experiences have local funders had with non-local foundations?
  • How can multi-funder collaboration in rural settings be enhanced?

Findings identify and define tensions often present between collaborating foundations, illustrate the usefulness of intermediary funders (e.g., community or regional foundations), explore best practices for planning and executing funder collaborations, identify structural issues that can impede collaboration, and detail program officer personality traits and competencies that contribute to better partnerships.

While this research was conducted within a rural context, participants in the study reported that the challenges identified in foundation collaboration are relevant to both urban and rural settings. In other words, the dynamics that enhance or impede foundation collaboration transcend the rural/urban divide.

Foundations should not take for granted that more resources pooled from multiple foundations will necessarily expand impact. To the contrary, poorly planned or managed funder collaboratives can result in frustrating and disappointing results, as well as wasted resources. It is vitally important, then, that foundations draw upon empirically derived evidence in their quest to more effectively partner with each other in pursuit of real and lasting impact.

Bob Reid, PhD, served as CEO for the JF Maddox Foundation, which supports grantees to overcome challenges and accelerate opportunity in Lea County, New Mexico, for the past 26 years. To learn more about these research findings, contact Bob at rjreid@okstate.edu.

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