Collaboration: a leveraged way of investing in social change?

“Collaboration” is a word that is frequently heard in philanthropy circles. With it, often comes the promise of greater resource, heightened efficiency, better knowledge of issues, clearer strategy and, above all, greater overall social impact. Indeed, the objective of taking part in any kind of collaboration is to achieve more than the sum of individual parts; and with that potential for leverage, why continue to work alone? But in practice, achieving optimal results through collaboration can be much more challenging than it sounds. Giving up sole decision-making power, compromising on strategy, balancing the equality of partners, as well as maintaining productive relationships between collaborators are oft-cited difficulties that frequently threaten to jeopardise the outcomes of working in partnership. From the NGO perspective, issues can arise around perceived competition for limited resources and control – when philanthropists pool their resources on a common cause, does that mean less funding for individual NGOs pursuing what seem unique missions?

In mid-October, the Institute for Philanthropy brought together members of the current cohort of The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW) as well as TPW alumni to discuss with practitioners the opportunities and challenges around collaboratives of all shapes and sizes: both between donors, as well as between funders and the not-for-profit sector at large.

Dr. Kristian Parker, TPW alumnus and Chair of Oak Foundation, opened the morning’s session with a presentation of the Foundation’s approach to collaboration. Oak’s mission is to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. Given the magnitude of these problems, coupled with Oak’s decision not to run projects in-house and to keep foundation staff relatively lean, Kristian explained that collaboration presents a brilliant opportunity to leverage resources – both financial and human capital (e.g., partner foundations’ expert staff ) – to affect a greater change than they could achieve alone.

Sometimes, Oak may collaborate with other funders to create an institution to fill a gap in social change infrastructure, like a coordinated advocacy coalition to advance public policy solutions. European Climate Foundation (ECF) is one such example. Founded in 2007 by a group of philanthropists (including Oak) who together recognised the need for concerted action on climate change mitigation, ECF promotes climate and energy policies that greatly reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and help Europe play an even stronger leadership role in the debate around climate change.

Patty Fong, Programme Director for Energy Efficiency at ECF, was our second speaker of the morning. Patty explained that ECF frequently plays a role in building coalitions in the energy efficiency community itself. ECF funded, for example, the Energy Revolution Alliance in the UK and DENEFF in Germany. A multi-stakeholder collaboration model for the policy advocacy community requires, Patty argues, a well-defined shared value proposition, a neutral platform for exchange and trust building and strong and clear leadership. Oak’s investment in ECF, an organisation expert at managing effective partnerships itself, therefore represents a kind of ‘double leverage’: by partnering with other philanthropies to create an institution that can further catalyse collaboration amongst other stakeholders, Oak effectively multiplied the social impact of its initial grant.

Our final speaker of the morning was Ben Jackson, Chief Executive at Bond, who shared his experience of coordinating large-scale collaborations among NGOs working in international development. Ben spoke about his experience mobilising coalitions in fast developing crises or on-going conflicts (for example around the struggle in Darfur), where a coordinated effort is needed to address a problem. Whilst putting together coalitions can be vital to deliver much-needed assistance, Ben also emphasised the importance of ending partnerships where they are no longer needed: there’s often no point maintaining a coalition where the reason it was initially created no longer exists.

When programming a session for TPW on a topic in philanthropy, one of our aims is to challenge participants to think differently about how they approach their philanthropy. Key lessons that emerged included vital components that make up a productive partnership: a united common purpose, clear strategy and goals, a joint evaluation and exit strategy, as well as effective leadership. Creating and running these collaborations are often best managed by a lead entity able to dedicate the time and resources to help unlock the full potential of each co-investor and partner on the ground making a concerted effort to achieve lasting change.

This post was written by Tracy Mack Parker, who is the Managing Director of the Institute for Philanthropy in the US. 

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