A Conversation With Experienced Collaborators

2013 (Issue 3)
Whether across sectors or among funders or among nonprofits, collaboration is increasingly touted as a way to achieve impact. But what makes a collaboration successful? Is collaboration a practical strategy for small-staff philanthropy?

Exponent Philanthropy Senior Program Manager Sara Beggs spoke recently with two Exponent Philanthropy members with experience in collaborative models: Emily Tow Jackson of the Tow Foundation and Liz Sak of the Cricket Island Foundation. Emily has an extensive history with cross-sector collaboration to change the juvenile justice systems in Connecticut and New York, and Liz initiated and participates in several funder collaboratives and uses nonprofit collaborations as a key strategy to affect change in the field of youth development.

Cross-Sector Collaboration

Sara: Emily, can you tell us a bit about your foundation’s history?

Emily: The foundation started in the 1990s with two staff. It was a typical family foundation with several giving interests, most of which fell into the areas of disadvantaged youth and families. In 1999, a series of news articles brought attention to the fact that Connecticut had one of the worst juvenile justice systems in the country. We made a decision at that time that something must be done, but we really had no idea what that would be. So we gave ourselves a year to focus on learning about the juvenile justice system. We knew we were taking some risks engaging in such a huge, broken system, but the family’s wealth was built by taking risks and constantly learning. Why shouldn’t we employ those skills in our grantmaking?

Sara: Tell me what your “year of learning” looked like. How open were people to your inquiries?

Emily: We actually began to learn about issues through our grantees. We also held a series of roundtables with people involved in the courtroom, state-level policymakers, direct service providers, and advocates. We invited people into the board room to discuss their roles at nonprofits and express their frustrations. I think people were open to our inquiries from the beginning because we approached our conversations and learning from this perspective: How can we work together to help you in your work? We asked nonprofits, What are the things you would never approach a foundation to fund? What are the unique opportunities you see that should be funded, but won’t be?

We knew the system was broken, and we wanted to position ourselves as an organization to help rather than criticize. This time of learning allowed us to build some very good partnerships early on.

Sara: Did you have a collaborative model in mind from the start?

Emily: The collaborative came about when we started meeting with advocates. It was a very organic, unintentional process. We held brainstorming sessions around how to make change, which broadened the foundation’s funding areas. Our casual meetings with the advocates became a partnership, which then turned into The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CTJJA).

Sara: Were there keys to making the collaboration effective from the beginning?

Emily: We didn’t enter the arena with a “know-it-all” attitude. No preconceptions. We need to be open and inquisitive to succeed. It also took some risk-taking because we didn’t have an understanding of the problem.

Sara: How important is it to check your ego at the door when engaging in a collaboration?

Emily: It is important to check your personal agenda, not
necessarily your ego. It is critical that the partners develop a shared vision. We provided funding to hire a facilitator to lead a collective visioning process. This shared vision allowed a group of highly passionate people to move forward together with their egos intact, even from their different angles and perspectives.

Sara: How important is it to have the right personalities in place?

Emily: You’re always going to have different personalities, but coalitions can work if you create the right atmosphere so personalities won’t dominate. A shared vision is the critical piece. With both our collaborations (one in Connecticut and a more recent one in New York), hiring good facilitators has been critical. In New York, we entered a room with a lot of personal agendas and personalities, but we were able to rally everyone behind a shared vision.

Sara: When engaged in a collaborative, how do you decide which components your foundation will fund?

Emily: That’s the hardest part of the job. We really experimented in grantmaking early on. We tried to find areas that could ultimately leverage bigger state dollars. We reached out to the state and asked if they would fund new strategies if we could show the strategies were successful. We then gave multiyear grants to organizations to implement and test new strategies, getting the state to ultimately fund them once they saw their success.

Sara: Over the course of 15 years, you have seen tremendous changes in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. What are some of CTJJA’s greatest victories?

Emily: Connecticut’s juvenile justice system has gone from being one of the worst to being a model for states around the country. Just to list a few victories, 16 year olds are no longer tried in the adult justice system; services are provided that help the most vulnerable stay out of trouble; and conditions have improved in juvenile facilities. Among the greatest achievements is this: Connecticut has better public safety and spends less money to get it. Among youth 15 and under (the state’s traditional juvenile population), total arrests fell 48% from 2002—2011 and serious violent crime arrests fell 51%. After adjusting for inflation, the two agencies that administer Connecticut’s juvenile justice system spent $2 million less on juvenile programs and facilities in the 2011—2012 fiscal year than 10 years earlier.

Sara: After you achieved the Alliance’s early goals, how did you manage group expectations for its next steps?

Emily: Before moving forward, we told the story. We contracted an independent party to produce a research paper to tell the story, document the process, and analyze lessons learned. We also held a forum to congratulate everyone and talk about the process.

Then we took 3 hours to discuss what comes next. What problems still need to be solved? There also was an opportunity for individuals to share what they are doing to complement the Alliance’s work. We also hold an annual retreat day for our collaboratives to redefine our direction. We ask, Where are we in our goals? What are the biggest challenges? What do we have funding for? What are we uniquely qualified to do? Where are the opportunities?

By problem solving together and continuing to work together, we are confident that we will continue to make change.

Funder Collaboratives and Supporting Nonprofit Collaboration

Sara: Liz, can you tell us about your foundation’s history?

Liz: The Cricket Island Foundation began in 2001 with assets from the sale of a family business. It was started as a way to bring the family together, but was not particularly mission driven. Over time, the trustees developed a clearer sense of their desired impact, and the foundation now relies heavily on collaboration to achieve its mission of developing the capacity and commitment of young people to improve their lives and communities, as well as the world around them. The foundation does this by supporting organizations that offer meaningful opportunities for youth to contribute to positive societal change.

Sara: What are the different ways you use collaboration to achieve your mission?

Liz: We use collaboration to learn about the field, influence other funders with regard to practices and grantees, and build opportunities for nonprofits to collaborate together.

Sara: What were your first steps when creating a funder collaborative?

Liz: We first invited individual organizations and groups of organizations to the foundation to educate us about the field of youth development. We met with funders and other key stakeholders, relying on each connection to lead to yet another. The meetings were about listening and being open. All the conversations led to a clearer understanding of key organizations and needs in the field. The collaboration developed organically out of these conversations, as conversations are really a first step to building a relationship.

Sara: What drew other funders to the collaborative? Did you have a clear vision that attracted others, or did an informal group create a shared vision?

Liz: I think one of the most critical elements of a collaborative, at least at the beginning, is providing space for partners to participate in shaping the work. It is important that all partners come in with a shared big picture goal and a general sense of the path to achieve it, and then work together to flesh out the specifics.

When we have joined an existing collaborative such as the Just and Fair Schools Fund (JFSF) (see publicinterestprojects.org), we entered knowing we share its broad goal, and we worked collectively to figure out what that means in terms of grantmaking and strategy. When we have initiated things on our own, we typically articulate a similarly broad goal—for example, to support youth-led social change through a combination of general operating support and capacity building work—and then invite local partners to help us figure out the best way to do that in their community.

Sara: Did funders come to the table with money, or did they fund together only after building stronger relationships?

Liz: It depends on the collaborative. Some such as JFSF by design require funders to buy a seat at the table. The great thing about that collaboration is that, although funders put in very different amounts, everyone has equal say in how funds are distributed; smaller funders can leverage their investments to create a much bigger impact. When we initiate our own collaborations, such as when we led the process of creating the Diminishing Dollars report (see foundationcenter.org), we always lead by putting money on the table and then asking others to join us. Partners that join us on any projects share in the decision making regardless of the scale of the investment.

Sara: Many funders are passionate about a particular strategy or cause and want to engage other funders in that work. Have you seen collaborations started for this reason, and have you found them to be effective?

Liz: I have seen collaborations that started for this reason. Actually, it’s one of the reasons we started the Capacity Building Collaborative. But passion for a cause must be tempered by respect for other funders’ interests. Funders are often open to exploring ways to go deeper in what they are doing, but few want to be told they should fund something else. No one likes being told what to do. Instead, look for points of intersection.

Sara: It sounds like collaborations can take a lot of time. Is the strategy practical for a small-staff funder?

Liz: About 50% or more of our foundation’s time is meeting with people, building trust, and building relationships in formal and informal settings. Although that seems like a lot, this is a deliberate part of our strategy. We have more time for relationships because we’ve adopted a long-term grant strategy; staff aren’t reissuing grants every year. A funder that understands the power of collaboration will find ways to make it work.

Sara: What are some keys to your collaborative success?

Liz: Before entering a collaboration, we always ask ourselves, What are we willing to give up? We’ve had to be willing to let some things go. We’ve had to give up control around grantmaking. And, in a lot of cases, we’ve had to be willing to be a follower as much as a leader. I also think a strong sense of shared values and a shared commitment to clear and defined goals are critical when asking other funders to put money on the table. When these things are in place, it becomes easier to establish trust and to negotiate the means to the shared end.

Sara: Are there criteria for which tables you choose to join?

Liz: Yes. We look for places where we have opportunities to learn while leveraging our financial commitments. We also look for tables that are connected, directly or indirectly, to the work of our grantees. Finally, we look for places where the other partners are not the usual suspects but rather a broader range of funders. We are always looking for tables where we can have the maximum value for our grantees and our approach.

Sara: I know your foundation also supports nonprofit collaborations. What have been some of your key learnings in that area?

Liz: First and foremost, effective grantee collaborations need time and resources. It takes time to build trusting relationships. In our experience, it has taken 3—5 years for a group of nonprofits to come together and make commitments, but now we see them mentoring one another and connecting between our annual meetings. It also takes money. We need to invest at appropriate levels for long periods. This gives nonprofits the space to actually cooperate rather than compete. It has taken us 5 years to convince one grantee that our foundation is truly in it for the long haul.

Second, it’s really important that we are willing to let grantees talk about what they’re seeing from their side of the table, even when it’s hard for us to hear. We give the nonprofit cohorts opportunities to talk without foundation representatives in the room. This allows them to identify questions or issues without being identified individually.

Our thanks to Exponent Philanthropy members Emily Tow Jackson and Liz Sak for their contributions to this article.


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