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What It Takes to Make Donor Collaboratives Succeed

The five fundamental building blocks that are critical to ensuring that your philanthropic partnership is strong and effective.

Increasingly, philanthropists and foundations are collaborating to do more at scale. They’ve grown dissatisfied with chipping away at the margins of long-term, intractable problems, and are looking for ways to affect systems-level change. Big ideas and big ambitions require working in partnership. They require working with a broad range of partners across a range of sectors—not solely grantee partners, but often partners in the public and private sector as well. They also require funding partners who are willing to come together with the goal of exponentially increasing the scale or the scope of what any single funder could achieve alone.

The amount of collaboration in the philanthropic sector that we’re now witnessing is unprecedented in the history of philanthropy. It has extraordinary potential. But it is expressly because of this potential that it’s worth having a real conversation about effective collaboration. Assuming that the hard work of building a philanthropic partnership pays off, and the collaboration is launched into the world, how can we ensure it will last? We’re talking about big issues, complex systems, and relationships. As I outlined in my last post, there is so much that can go awry. How can we stack the odds in our favor that the philanthropic collaboratives we are so excited to launch will live up to their tremendous potential?

As is true with any relationship, it takes work. The basic guidelines are pretty clear: participants must take the effort seriously and dedicate ongoing time and attention to it. But it’s the ability to flex between the day-to-day efforts and strategic-level thinking that can be trickiest. In this line of work, it pays to pay attention to both the micro-level details and the big picture.

Over years of working specifically on philanthropic collaborations with more than a dozen major clients, my team has seen what works and what doesn’t. And we’ve distilled these learnings into fundamental building blocks that are key to ensuring that any philanthropic partnership is strong enough to overcome an inevitable range of challenges and stand the test of time. I want to stress that it’s not enough to have a few of these elements in place, or even most of them. Each of these elements merit careful thought, and ensuring there is a robust plan behind each will go a long way toward ensuring that your collaborative will accomplish what it set out to do.

  • Leadership. It’s important to have one or more well-respected, visionary conveners—which can be either individuals or institutions—who also have a willingness to use their social capital and network to achieve fundraising goals. The second part of that sentence is often harder than the first part. It’s not enough to have a leader who is recognized in a sector, even if he or she is a leading philanthropist closely associated with a particular cause. If that person isn’t willing to ask peers to fund alongside them, it won’t happen. Remember, being a champion is not the same thing as being a fundraiser. The leadership you need is an individual or an institution that is comfortable with both roles.

My team watched this realization unfold in real time. A client’s organization had developed a proposal that centered on their executive leader being the public face of a new initiative and reaching deeply into their personal network for funding support. The proposal itself was exciting and had great potential for impact. But our experience to date indicated that their leader preferred to keep his philanthropy extremely private, eschewing a public role and never soliciting friends or colleagues for support. So, we had to ask the client’s team, “Is he actually willing to do this?” There was a silence as the people in the room realized the answer was no. They’d built a platform around a launching point that would not occur.

  • A clear program strategy. This means that you have the right technical expertise onboard with a thorough understanding of the issue you’re tackling, and that the programmatic approach you’re taking has either a track record of success or a solid theory of change. You might be advocating for a groundbreaking, but as-yet-unproven, approach that has enormous potential to change business-as-usual. That’s fantastic, but make sure your program is designed by—or, at the very least, in close consultation with—experts in the field you’re looking to impact and is informed by the voices of the stakeholders who will be most impacted.

Clear data and metrics are a must—otherwise, you’ll have little ability to know for yourself what difference you’re making and be undoubtedly handcuffed when it comes to making your pitch to potential funding partners. (Pro-tip: If you don’t have the data, your program may not be ready for the high-stakes effort of a donor collaborative.)

  • A solid partnership strategy. Distinct from your program strategy, a partnership strategy allows you to articulate a compelling, specific, clearly defined opportunity and a timeline for the partnership. You don’t want to say to a potential co-funder: “together we can achieve so much more,” or “together we can fulfill our mission.” Instead, you want to be able to say: “With your co-investment of $x, and my co-investment of $y, together we can achieve z.” Be specific about why you need co-investors and what you’ll achieve together: A partnership strategy tied to clear programmatic goals, as defined by your program strategy, is critical to winning co-investors.

In addition to communicating the partnership opportunity, a solid partnership strategy also delineates the role the partner is expected to play, the decisions they’ll be expected to make (or not make), the type of input you expect them to provide, and the formal and informal governance structures that make clear where decision-making sits. This is the “how” of partnership and collaboration.

I’m a firm believer that these questions are best sorted at the outset—well before you’re bringing partners to the table. The biggest mistake anyone can make, however, is not considering partnership in a way that’s thorough and realistic. Case in point: Countless organizations assume that partnership is about finding funders, and the “opportunity” that they’re offering those potential funders is the sheer joy of parting with significant sums of money. In the absence of a partnership-centric strategy, their approach is: “We’re going to identify potential funders and they will fund our thing. End of story.” Not only are these organizations not able to communicate a bigger vision of what could be accomplished through collaborative funding (that is, their desired outcome), they also leave no room for bringing funding partners onboard in a way that’s creative and feels good for the funding partners.

On the flip side, I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients who have tackled these tough questions with real brilliance. Though the models of collaboration that these clients ultimately pursued vary greatly, what they share is the same level of thoughtfulness in developing their partnership strategy. They made a concerted effort to think from the perspective of potential funding partners and made meaningful adjustments to make what they were offering more compelling. They developed a specific, programmatically-informed case for investment. They carved out roles with an eye for creating a sense of empowerment in their partners, while at the same time being quite exacting about what they did and didn’t want their partners to do or be involved in. The collaboratives that do the thinking to answer these types of questions at the outset are the collaboratives that are successful.

There’s a common misperception among those unfamiliar with the art of fundraising that once people are aware of your issue, they will, like magic, be immediately compelled to support it. But no matter how good you think your program sounds to you, it doesn’t guarantee that potential funding partners will understand its value or want to come onboard. Afterall, there are hundreds of good causes out there competing for attention, donations, and funding partners. For this reason, it’s important to understand your donor landscape to make sure you have a line of sight into the other organizations and funders in your space, so you can find your niche and better articulate your unique selling proposition.

But even with your landscape complete, your core messages honed, and your pitch deck in tow, you can’t stop there. Even the best program needs a good fundraiser who knows how to engage the target donor segment, gauge the interest levels of potential funders, grow and cultivate the right relationships, and—when the time is right—make an ask that’s informed and tailored.

  • A plan for relationship stewardship. Assuming all four elements above are solidly in place, you are likely to have co-funders come onboard. Congratulations! This means that you need to be prepared to take care of them, to nurture those relationships, and to not take them for granted. This is where a stewardship plan comes in.

The key to stewardship is finding both innovative and simple ways—on an individual basis—to make your funding partners feel central, rather than peripheral, to your donor collaborative. Meet your partners where they are and customize their journey accordingly. For example, for the partner that is energized by first-person experiences, ensure there are opportunities for site visits or briefings with your most engaging programmatic experts. For the partner who is turned off by frequent touchpoints, but values rigorous analysis, consider in-depth, investment-style reporting.

Across the board, it’s critical to ensure that dedicated staff with relationship management expertise (either in-house or outsourced) are in place to communicate with partners about both successes and setbacks and to answer questions, address concerns, invite input, and generally ensure that the partnership feels as relevant and exciting in two years—or five—as it does on the day of launch.

If you take the time at the front end to put these building blocks is in place, you will go a long way toward ensuring that your partnership gets off the ground, that you are positioned to cope with inevitable setbacks, and most importantly, that you and your partners are able to reach the exciting goals you’ve set for yourself.

For further guidance and strategy support, send us a note. For more than 20 years, Geneva Global has provided trusted consulting and advisory services to philanthropies and social sector leaders from around the world. We’d love to hear more about your vision and how we can help you achieve your goals.