Philanthropists are continually seeking out ways to make their giving more effective, from creating unique giving structures to working closer with the communities being assisted. One of the oldest strategies for increasing impact is collaboration, which is evident in large community organizations like United Way Worldwide.
In recent years, the number of independent funder collaboratives has skyrocketed, which begs the question of how much collaboration really helps. Several researchers have begun looking at collaboratives to see how they function effectively and identify the reasons they might fail or succeed.
A team of researchers recently set out to find concrete answers to this inquiry and published their results in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Here is more information about their findings.
Uncovering What Drives Success in Collaborative Philanthropy
The researchers identified more than 125 articles and reports addressing philanthropic collaboratives. They then conducted an analysis of their findings to make recommendations about what these organizations should do and what they should avoid. Ultimately, the team uncovered important knowledge gaps, especially when it came to the question of whether or not collaboratives are effective structures for giving.
Perhaps it is not surprising that these knowledge gaps exist. One of the inherent difficulties in studying collaboratives is that there is no perfect control group for comparison. Furthermore, structures across collaboratives vary dramatically, and leaders often prove reticent to speak openly about their failures.
Next, the team decided to look deeply at 10 relatively successful collaboratives and 15 that had experienced considerable setbacks to help fill in the identified knowledge gaps. All of the included collaboratives pooled resources to fund initiatives rather than providing support while members pursued their own, individual philanthropy.
The successful collaboratives all had existed for at least three years, which gave leaders adequate time to reflect on their processes. The researchers conducted dozens of interviews and received surveys from hundreds of relevant parties. In the end, the team found that collaboration can drive incredible returns when executed well and effect results that no one could have accomplished on their own.
The Importance of a Unifying Investment Thesis in Collaboration
Of course, no consistent recipe for success exists for collaborative philanthropic organizations. However, the researchers did find one prominent thing that all 10 successful organizations had in common: the presence of a clear primary investment thesis.
This thesis lays out exactly how the collaborative will achieve an impact that could not be accomplished by the individual members alone. This thesis also explored how the team could create value for both funders and grantees based on the types of goals that it hopes to pursue.
Everyone involved with the collaborative needs to be on the same page about the investment thesis, which is not an easy thing to get right. Collaboratives should prioritize a primary thesis, according to the researchers. That way, everyone works toward the same goal.
These theses took one of several forms. Some theses focused on organization funding, which means finding proven, capable grantees and trusting them to develop their own programming. Other theses want to build more resilient fields by changing practices slowly over time to help organizations more easily carry out their strategies. A third thesis strategy involves working toward achievable milestones on the road toward population-level change. These three strategies are all valid, but very different, which is why it is so critical to get everyone in agreement.
Deciding on the Optimal Investment Thesis for a Collaborative
The next question deals with how funders go about finding the right investment thesis for their collaboratives. The researchers found that this agreement usually came out of a discussion of how the collaborative members want to make an impact and the values they wish to bring to their work. When all of this information is on the table, it becomes easier to figure out a strategy that capitalizes on everyone’s individual strengths and allows them to work together toward a common good.
Every collaborative goes through a startup phase, which is the ideal time for addressing this sort of question. One of the significant strengths of a collaborative is the different experiences, knowledge, and insight brought by each member. However, this strength can lead to downfall if balance is not found, and expectations made explicit, early.
While the conversation about strategy should happen early, that does not mean plans should not evolve over time. Another key aspect of success for collaboratives involves flexibility. Each of the successful collaboratives studied by the researchers when through significant strategic modifications later in its lifecycle.
Often, successful collaboratives were distinguished from failed ones by the ability to identify the need for change and the ability to achieve a new consensus. Both internal and external circumstances will shift and the investment thesis may also need to change as these shifts occur. Such a change will keep the value proposition high for donor-members so that everyone stays invested in the organization. When an organization does not change, people may start to withdraw and the collaborative will crumble.