Accelerating Change by Expanding Networks Locally and Regionally

Ahhhh – networks! With collaboration a resounding theme in many discussions at the Social Impact Exchange Conference last week – multiple organizations, multiple sectors – having a deeper conversation on the risks, rewards, strategies, and lessons learned from engaging in those sorts of partnerships was timely. From the opening introductions offered by each attendee around the room at the final breakout session on “Engaging Networks of Local and Family Foundations to Drive Scaled Impact,” it was clear that everyone present was eager to dive into the details.

Moderator Katherine Petrillo-Smith from the Association of Small Foundations kicked off the conversation with a great quote from a Stanford Social Innovation Review article on “Letting Go” – quite appropriate when engaging in any deep relationship – and clearly critical for a group of funders looking to collaborate. That said, lest anyone confuse letting go with stepping back, it was evident from the three panelists that their organizations (or those they represented) had indeed “leaned in” by choosing to collaborate with other funders with the specific intent to improve their desired impact.

Highlighting the diversity of their efforts, assets, and stories, Elliot Berger, just weeks into his new role as Managing Director at Arabella Advisers, spoke of a small Family Foundation’s ($3 million) work in Houston to align funders around a “cradle to college” focus. Elizabeth Sak, Executive Director at the Cricket Island Foundation (which she joined after years of being a fund recipient) highlighted the progression of the Foundation’s ($44 million) movement into placed-based strategies in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans. And Pat Jenny, Program Director at the New York Community Trust ($2 billion) told the story of how a group of funders focused on workforce development in NYC evolved from conversations in the 90’s to launching a collaborative funding trust in 2001, and ultimately working directly with NYC government in 2004 that turned into a national effort  called National Fund for Workforce Solutions.

As the largest (financial) effort in the room, Pat actually noted that the secrets to their success lay in the simplicity of the collaborative network: Show up! Invest! Get involved! And all sizes are welcome!

This welcoming approach to (or simple opportunity for) funders of various budgets to participate, highlights one of the noted benefits of collaborative funding – particularly smaller funders – and that is LEVERAGE. Being a member of a collaborative network of funders can provide smaller organizations the opportunity to join the table with larger, national funders, have their voices heard, and increase the impact of their individual grants by leveraging the larger collective.

With the diversity of people, budgets, funding approaches and strategies, navigating the dynamics of collaborative funding networks can be critical. Our panelists offered some tips, including:

1) Provide a ‘safe space’ (where no one feels threatened)

2) Be clear about the end game and agree on a common set of goals

3) Be sure that everyone leaves with something (there’s a value add)

4) Really listen!

With so much to capture from a conversation rich in experiences, observations, and recommendations, let me offer a few favorite quotes from the discussion:

“Everyone Loves A Funder”— important to be mindful of the power dynamics; the challenge is to create some sort of ‘firewall’ so you can get honest feedback from your co-funders and your grantees.

“Life Doesn’t Change In A Year”— funders need to think longer term on outcomes; look at collaborative outcomes in the short term (e.g. good relationships among partners, etc..)

“Networks Move at the Speed of Trust”– relationships take time to form and solidify, but this trust critical for sustainability

“Be Willing To Let Go” of your own needs – including control

“If You Are Being Strategic, You Probably Want To Collaborate”

And finally, here is a summary of key lessons from the session:

  • Look at where a collaborative fits (or not) into your internal strategies
  • Really understand what you are willing to give up (or not)
  • Start with grantees at the center and identify where/how collaborations can provide the most help
  • Collaboratives don’t work if MONEY is the only organizing principle
  • Be careful in partner selection (understand full implications of alignment)
  • Be aware of the environment when entering and supporting new communities
  • Look for existing distribution channels and/or partners
  • Be mindful of what you leave behind and what happens when you leave
  • Work to build capacity in communities: do it, and do it again


Andrea E McGrath is an independent consultant, researcher and partner in Connecting Capital.