Working Collaboratively in Philanthropy - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Working Collaboratively in Philanthropy

Working collaboratively in philanthropy is a powerful tool for funders. Philanthropic collaboration can enhance organizational capacity, keeping lone organizations strong and sustainable over time. Similarly, in a sector where organizations often duplicate services, collaboration can streamline efforts and produce better results. Below are ways funders can support nonprofit collaboration as well as collaborate with other funders.

Supporting Nonprofit Collaboration

Convening nonprofits can be a relatively easy, low-cost way for foundations to support collaboration. Foundations can use their reputations to bring together grantees, local organizations, and other funders to focus on specific issues, or to meet and greet with no agenda at all. These gatherings can foster new relationships, a better understanding of the issues at hand, and even action and partnership among those involved.

Nonprofit Collaboration Tips From Colleagues

  • Convene nonprofits working in the same issue area. Nonprofits need to work closely on real issues, not just fundraising. Some Exponent Philanthropy members hold unstructured monthly or quarterly lunches with area nonprofits.
  • Provide technical assistance grants to nonprofits exploring collaboration. In the early stages, most of the cost spent by nonprofit leaders is in exploring options and building relationships. A modest grant might provide a meeting space, facilitation, or professional consultants to help move things along.
  • Sponsor workshops or provide scholarships. Workshops and scholarships give nonprofits a chance to gather the tools and build the skills necessary to facilitate collaboration.
  • Support programs. Programs bring funders, government agencies, and nonprofits together to focus on addressing difficult community issues. This kind of cross-sector collaboration can be a lot of work, but it can also bring about big change.
  • Acknowledge that collaboration is hard. Collaboration takes time and uses already scarce resources. Plus, it often relies on tricky interpersonal dynamics. Funders can do their grantees a service by making it clear they don’t expect grantees’ efforts to be easy, or even successful.
  • Make a long-term commitment. Collaboration takes more time than most grant cycles. Partners need to develop trusting, open, and committed relationships with one another, which takes time. Consider a funding commitment of at least three years.
  • Practice what you preach. Funders interested in getting their grantees to work together might consider participating in a funder collaborative.

Action Items for Nonprofit Collaboration

  • Engage staff and trustees in conversation about how your foundation could encourage and support collaboration among grantees and within the communities you serve.
  • Talk with fellow funders who have supported nonprofit collaboration.
  • Investigate successful collaborations in your community or focus area. 
  • Consider getting involved in a collaborative yourself, whether it’s with funders, nonprofits, businesses, or government.

Collaborating With Other Funders

Collaboratives offer funders the opportunity to exchange information, streamline efforts, increase their visibility, share risks and opportunities, and, in some cases, fund jointly.
They have varying degrees of engagement:

  • A learning network is a group of funders who come together to hear about what’s happening in a field or issue area, share information, and explore grant strategies. Members may find opportunities to align some of their giving.
  • Strategic alignments attract funders who share a grantmaking goal, and who work together to gain publicity, traction, and impact. Although the funders may collaborate on projects or support the same grantees, they often do their grantmaking independently.
  • A pooled fund allows funders to contribute to a collective pot of money from which they make grants. Some pooled funds require a lot of time and energy from each partner, whereas others require a simple financial commitment.

Not every collaborative fits neatly into one of the three types. Participants will often choose aspects from each, based on the group’s goals.

Funder Collaboration Tips From Colleagues

  • Plan carefully. Learn from others who have collaborated successfully and include those who you aim to serve in the planning process. Reach consensus on expectations of time, money, and participation. Develop a set of guiding principles that every participant agrees to.
  • Align goals and strategies. In addition to sharing an interest, funders must share a common sense of how to approach the problem. Discuss both early on. Make sure your strategies are specific and actionable.
  • Build relationships thoughtfully. Trust and personal bonds among funders are key. However, these can take time to nurture.
  • Hire someone to help you. Collaboration is a complex mix of money, personalities, strategic thinking, and opportunities. Designate someone neutral to drive the process. Consider a staff person or a consultant who knows how to do this.
  • Choose a neutral place to park the money. This may be a community foundation, or a funder who agrees to separate grant management from grant selection.
  • Pool more than funds. Even with a pooled fund, consider what each funder brings to the table beyond money (i.e., connections, media relationships, skills, and expertise.)
  • Compromise. You may not always get what your individual foundation wants. Be willing to compromise for the sake of consensus.
  • Give people an out. Be clear up front that collaboration is voluntary. Participants can take their money elsewhere if they wish. Include this clause in the guiding principles.
  • Use online tools to streamline the process. A shared online workspace can allow partners to send and edit documents without the back-and-forth of long e-mail chains.
  • Evaluate the project. Particularly for large collaborations, involving an external evaluator to design the project and craft realistic goals and outcomes can be helpful.
  • Share the credit. Be willing to share recognition with other funders and sometimes not receive any recognition at all.

Action Items for Funder Collaboration

  • Talk with fellow funders who have been part of collaboratives.
  • Get to know other funders in your area. Perhaps organize a simple coffee, with no agenda, and see what shared interests emerge.
  • Talk with your board to identify which of your goals you might reach more quickly or address more deeply through working with others.
  • Consider which models of partnership appeal most and are the best match for your goals, grantmaking style, and board or staff capacity.

Have You Registered for Our Annual Conference?

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  1. Lois Savage

    The Sustained Collaboration Network is comprised of funder collaboratives and individual foundations supporting permanent collaborations (mergers, acquisitions, administrative consolidations, joint projects and alliances) among nonprofits. Visit for more information.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *