This is a guest post by Jacob Harold, who leads grantmaking for the Philanthropy Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
By Jacob Harold
These days, if a nonprofit manager says that their organization can solve a social problem alone, they’re likely to get quizzical—if not dirty—looks. After years of isolated activity, most nonprofit leaders have come to understand that the great challenges of our time are too big and too complicated for any single organization to solve. The broader philanthropic community seems to have internalized the fact that collaboration is often a prerequisite to impact.
But it is one thing to say that cross-organizational alignment is important; actually organizing such activity is another challenge altogether. And that challenge is multiplied when—as is so often true—the key players are not all nonprofits, but also include government or corporate organizations.
Given the constrained budgets and overburdened schedules of today’s leaders (regardless of sector) we cannot rely on them to magically align their efforts. Much to their credit, organizational leaders sometimes leap the difficult structural barriers and self-organize. But it often takes an outsider or a new party to help a whole be greater than the sum of its parts.
I believe that foundation program staff are sometimes well-positioned to play this facilitative role. Let’s be clear: they are well-positioned not a result of any particular skill or intelligence but only because of the unique character of the foundation perch. A program officer at a major foundation can come to understand the contours of a field simply by returning their phone calls and emails (not that we always live up to that obligation). Even a passive PO can quickly learn who is doing what, at what scale, and why. No other player has such privileged access to information. But what should we do with that privilege?
Some funders have tried to make good use of it. The Packard Foundation worked closely with consultant FSG to help their marine fisheries grantees align their strategies. Liquidnet for Good’s Markets for Good work has been essential in articulating a shared vision within the community of online giving platforms (I—and many others—have been involved in that work, as well). Many funder affinity groups support efforts to align strategies among nonprofits in a given issue area.
So foundation staff can sometimes take up a share of the financial, logistical and intellectual burdens of collaboration. But there are at least two major barriers to useful funder participation.
First, just because you have a bird’s eye view of a field to see the key dynamics doesn’t mean you know what to do next. In fact, no one may immediately know how to improve the functioning of the system as a whole. It may take research, discussion, and deliberation to determine a strategy—activities which themselves require collaboration.
Second, nonprofits are made up of human beings who generally don’t like being told what to do by an unelected or unappointed party. Collaboration requires a sense of shared ownership; if people believe there’s a puppet master, they will not bring the same spirit of collaboration, purpose, and engagement that is needed. They might fake it for a while, but it won’t last.
So foundation staff find themselves in a profoundly tricky position. They are often better-positioned than anyone to help align disparate efforts. But they can only succeed with authentic buy-in from participants, first to come up with the solution and then to execute it. That buy-in is difficult to build given the inherent power dynamics of foundation funding. This is not only a strategic challenge, it is an emotional one.
At the risk of being trite, there’s a simple way to get over these barriers. Like any facilitator, foundation staff need to be honest, humble, and focused on shared purpose: honest about the challenges facing a field, humble about their role, and constantly reinforcing the group’s common goals. (It doesn’t hurt if they—where appropriate—provide general operating support!)
Grantmaking is often presented as a fundamentally analytical enterprise. It can be. But in our increasingly complicated world, it just may be interpersonal skills that are most important to help us capitalize on our lucky bird’s-eye views.