Everyone wants to collaborate, but it’s hard to give up control

Few funders tackle small, discrete problems that one foundation can address by itself. But fortunately, philanthropy isn’t driven by competition, where success only comes at the detriment of peers. It is no surprise then, that interest in collaboration is high – there are conferences, an array of subjectarea funder networks, and many helpful, popular articles.

Why, then, do so many collaborations produce more meetings than impact? Because funders, like many of us, find it difficult to give up control over decisions.

Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer noted this challenge in a recent post about his own difficulties forming successful collaborations. He found collaboration difficult because foundations have their own strategies, their own leadership structures, and their own processes for approval and reporting. Duke University professor Joel Fleishman summarized this well, writing, “Foundation boards and staff are naturally reluctant to let go of the money and the decision making.”

Where does this leave the philanthropist who aspires to do more than share information with her or his peers, who wants to take on bigger challenges more effectively? In our work, we have seen two models that allow funders to give up control and enjoy the benefits of joint projects: the negotiated deal and the beautiful friendship. Both endow collaborations with the strategy, decision-making approach, and funding needed to succeed.

Success through strong planning – the negotiated deal

This formal model of partnership draws its inspiration from the private sector, where companies with competing interests seek to create and share economic value via joint ventures. Starbucks and Pepsi may be natural allies to make and sell a coffee drink through supermarkets across the country, but how does each company ensure that broader competing interests don’t swamp the potential benefits?

The most important lesson from successful joint ventures (via a 2004 Harvard Business Review study) is to tightly plan and carefully negotiate from the start. Strategy, governance, ongoing responsibilities, and organizational structure must be agreed upon in great detail (e.g., the joint venture’s strategy should pass muster as a business plan in its own right).

We have seen a similar model work in the social sector as well. Our work with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Linden Trust for Conservation on Project Finance for Permanence shows that diligent planning and detailed negotiations among funders can produce solid results. Funders agree on all of the financial and operational details involved in the collaboration, and then close the deal with funding commitments. These tight collaborations have led to millions of acres of conservation in the Brazilian Amazon, Costa Rica, and the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia.

Success through strong relationships – the beautiful friendship

Formal negotiations may be the only path to successful joint ventures in the private sector. But foundations have a resource that for-profit companies often lack: the ability to trust each other. Trust is what slashes the costs of collaboration by allowing partners to agree to give up some of their parochial interests for a larger goal.

There is no magic formula for building the trust that allows a foundation to “let go of the money.” Trust comes from repeated interactions and the willingness to step outside of parochial goals. The Energy Foundation famously grew from the close friendship of the three foundation presidents who started it. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation established the Colorado River Collaborative based on a shared view that the biggest freshwater challenge in the West needed a unified effort – even if no one funder or NGO knew precisely which strategies were needed. In both cases, once the partners trusted each other enough to let go a bit, a tight collaboration flourished.

Beware the unhappy medium

We do not expect these two paths to work in every circumstance. Each collaboration is shaped by the people and goals involved, and neither strong planning nor strong relationships can be conjured out of thin air. Even in the private sector, where billions of dollars are at stake, only a slight majority of such ventures succeed.

Given limited staff resources, it often makes perfect sense to pursue a simple, loose collaboration. Foundation staff sharing information and insights, building networks, and developing a better sense of the broader field can have tremendous value by helping to optimize the collective contributions in a crowded field. They are much more helpful than failed versions of tight collaborations.

However, frustrations can mount when funders get caught in an unhappy medium in which they want the benefits of tight collaboration – a shared strategy, a coordinated portfolio of grants – but without giving up enough control to realize them. This unhappy medium can produce more meetings than impact as each funder seeks support for his or her own ideas without supporting the others’ goals.

Funders of a cause don’t always agree on the most important outcomes to target or the best strategy to achieve them from the start, nor should they. Indeed, these debates help the whole field improve its thinking. But even when funders agree on the basics – a goal, a general approach – they should not imagine that a tight collaboration will materialize without a great deal of conscious effort. Tight collaborations require the careful and intentional decision to give up some control and invest in the collaboration itself.

Thanks to Sam Tucker for sharing his thoughts on this topic.

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  • Jason Blau

    Jason is honored to be a trusted partner to clients rising to the occasion for communities and the planet.