Funder Collaboration: a compelling and cautionary tale

Collaboration is all the rage for foundations these days. Interest in funder collaboration is exploding. The benefits, including the much-desired ‘financial leverage’, are tantalising. Grantcraft’s own publication Funder Collaboratives: why and how funders work together provides an excellent overview of the topic. It reinforces other studies which suggest that, given the scale and social complexity of the development challenges today, funders will increasingly realise the limitations of working in isolation and look to collaborate with each other.

But at present, foundations’ interest in collaboration still appears to be more theoretical than applied. In reality, most remain deeply ambivalent. They find that a collaborative approach challenges traditional ways of working, and therefore, they steer away. Indeed there are already ‘heretics’, like Craig Dearden-Phillips of the Stepping Out Foundation, who are challenging the emerging orthodoxy. Writing in Third Sector he provocatively asks: “Why do we all dance to the discordant tune of collaboration? In the third sector we are far too eager to collaborate…slaves to an orthodoxy that collaboration always leads to better outcomes… Joint working goes against the grain.”

What everyone does agree on is that there is limited practical evidence for foundations to draw on to make such important, far-reaching strategic decisions. There are few documented examples of funder collaborations, beginning to end, that are candid enough for others to learn from. Funder collaboration: a compelling and cautionary tale begins to fill that gap. The paper, released last week by INTRAC on the basis of a two-year evaluation, outlines the story, the hard work and the mixed outcomes of a $13 million collaboration between four foundations working together in Africa. The paper asks the key questions: “Was it really worth it?” and “What do we learn from this about the practicalities of collaboration?

Funder collaboration: a compelling and cautionary tale identifies the major themes of Ambition, Commitment, Trust and Structures and systems. It shows how these A.C.T.S. of collaboration were both intrinsic to the success of the initiative, but also contributed to its frustrations and failures. Ambition and courage were vital, but needed to be tempered by humility; commitment was essential, but carried with it the temptation to control; trust was the critical core, but required enormous effort to develop; and structures and systems needed to be tailor-made, but also kept simple and cost-effective.

The paper identifies seven top tips for foundations contemplating collaboration with other funders. They are:

  1. Treat pooled funding with trepidation
  2. Choose suitable friends
  3. Travel to the field together
  4. Invest sufficient senior staff time
  5. Focus on the partner(s), not just the technical programme
  6. Let go of control to genuinely share ownership
  7. Organise appropriately

In your experience, what have been the main benefits and costs of collaboration? What would be your top tips for others to take away?


About the author(s)

Principal Consultant