Yes, Foster Collaborations, But How?

I was re-inspired by my fellow panelists and other speakers at the Social Impact Exchange Conference this week about the many ways philanthropy can contribute to social good. At the same time, I was struck by the complexities involved in how we select and exercise different roles.

During our panel discussion on “When is Philanthropy (Ir) Relevant?” Sam Karp of the California HealthCare Foundation described his foundation’s leadership of an eleven-state, cross-sector collaborative to develop a standardized user-friendly interface for health care enrollment connected to implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Sharon Alpert of the Surdna Foundation talked about Surdna’s work to support and network city officials across the country and others dedicated to implementing sustainability strategies. And, at the opening luncheon on Wednesday, Rip Rapson shared the Kresge Foundation’s impressive multi-faceted effort to reinvigorate Detroit’s economy. In each case, funders had identified an opportunity to tackle a critical issue by pulling together creative cross-sector partnerships.

Yet, while foundations are well-positioned to foster such collaborations, how can we best gauge the right approach? Below are several key elements highlighted by various speakers throughout the Conference, with accompanying questions for consideration:

Vetting with the field. Speakers noted the importance of first consulting with key stakeholders – and, in some cases, the broader public – to learn about key issues and ideas related to any problem one is trying to solve. This is undoubtedly critical; yet, given the time and resources involved, how much consultation should be undertaken and how does this vary with the stages of an effort?

Exercising leadership. Foundation representatives have the capacity to convene a wide range of stakeholders to address an issue, but how much direction and guidance is appropriate from a foundation in initiating and launching such a collaboration, and when should foundation representatives step back?

Changing roles over time. All collaborations evolve, so how should foundation representatives think about their changing roles related to leading, supporting, monitoring, championing, assessing and other elements of involvement as collaborations gain traction?

Certainly, the answers to the questions above vary with circumstances and we are continuing to learn as we aim to strike the right balance in our roles in various collaborative efforts in California. I welcome your thoughts.

Amy Dominguez-Arms is the Program Director for the California Democracy program at The James Irvine Foundation.

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