Tips for Successful Collaboration

We’ve all been at philanthropic conferences that speak about the need for more cross-sector collaboration. Unfortunately, too often we speak in generalities and platitudes when we know the reality of working with leaders in the private and public sectors can be exceptionally challenging.

That’s why I was impressed that last week’s Exchange conference got past the platitudes and into specifics. I participated in the opening panel, Catalyzing a New Era of Cross-Sector Collaboration, moderated by David Bornstein (Co-Founder of Solutions Journalism Network), along with Kathleen McLaughlin (Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at Walmart, Inc., and President of the Walmart Foundation) and Hilary Pennington (Executive Vice President for Programs at the Ford Foundation).

Themes that emerged from the conversation:

1. Look beyond the social sector transformative impact

The problems philanthropy aims to solve are far bigger than we can address by scaling even the most effective nonprofits. Social sector funders must look to public sector and for-profit partners to scale solutions.

At the Irvine Foundation, our Better Careers initiative aims to move 25,000 low-wage workers in California into jobs paying $18 or more an hour. That’s our best estimate based on investing $120 million in evidence-based nonprofits (and some community colleges) over six years.

That’s a huge lift and just a fraction of the 1.5 million California workers who need a higher wage to support their families. To fill this enormous gap, we are exploring partnerships with employers and others in the public and commercial sectors.

We’ve all seen the theory of change that goes from measurable outcomes to wishful thinking about transformative impact. Instead of wishing for a miracle, we must ask ourselves if outcomes fr our current approaches are aligned with our aspirations.

2. Collaboration – and smart strategy – is about listening, not telling

Giving grants to organizations to implement strategies that you, not they, have developed, is not collaboration. Funders need to remember who does the work on the ground and who sees the challenges and potential solutions with their own eyes. We need to check our egos at the door and approach our funding decisions – and collaboration – with open minds.

At Irvine, we took two years to strategically restructure our organization in favor of more collaboration with grantees, who are critical to the development of our multi-year initiatives. (You can read more about two such initiatives, Better Careers and Fair Work, as well as a blog post about how listening to grantees and others helped inform one of those initiatives.)

3. Design with collaboration in mind

As society’s needs push us toward more collaboration, funders must create specific, measurable goals to align partnerships around. This includes having the right internal skillsets and processes to enable successful partnerships. Equally vital is cultivating leaders – internally, as partners, and as grantees – with an ability to collaborate.

These are only insights; there are many more practical lessons about how funders can collaborate more – and more effectively. The goal is to make progress, which alone should drive efforts. I look forward to learning more from leaders like those at the Exchange conference and beyond.

If you have ideas for us at Irvine, or if would like to help us expand opportunities for low-wage, hardworking Californians, I’d love to hear from you at

Don Howard is President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine Foundation and led the recent transition to a focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for working Californians struggling with poverty. Previously, Don was a partner at The Bridgespan Group, heading their San Francisco office and advising nonprofit and corporate leaders on strategy and organizational effectiveness.