Collaboration Check-up

by | Jan 13, 2016

The Fund for Our Economic Future is a collaboration that supports collaborations, therefore, we have to really excel at collaboration to be effective. The challenge of excelling at collaboration was on full display earlier this month in Houston at the Collaboration Conference hosted by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. More than 300 leaders from foundations, United Ways and public sector grantmakers shared their lessons learned, their triumphs and their failings in the messy world of collaboration.

I was honored to share our Fund’s lessons in collaborative leadership through a workshop at the conference. More importantly, I learned a lot from others who are supporting collaborations that are catalyzing positive change within their communities. How helpful it is to step back from time-to-time from our own work, imbibe the lessons of others, and assess how we’re doing.  

Here is a Top 10 list of takeaways from the conference to help grantmakers excel at collaboration:

  1. Invest in leadership development. Collaborations that lack the right kind of leadership are guaranteed to fail. One head of a nonprofit called leadership development the “protein powder” in the collaboration shake.
  2. Align grant cycles with the collaboration cycle. Collaborations take a long time to gestate, and then their work can take years to unfold. The traditional one- to two-year grant cycle needs to be altered to reflect the long-term nature of collaborations.
  3. Support collaboration capacity. Effective collaboration demands rigor and intentionality. The funders of a collaboration to address chronic homelessness in Los Angeles regretted their decision to delay creating a structure that could facilitate the collaboration. The lack of structure slowed down the collaboration.
  4. Don’t just collect data. Grantmakers are good about requiring collaborations to collect data. We aren’t as good about using that data to inform our decision-making.   
  5. Resist the temptation to own. Collaborations should be owned by everyone who needs to be engaged, not just by those who pay for it.
  6. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Collaboration is hard work and messy. One grantmaker compared being in a collaboration with sitting in a very uncomfortable chair (like one at a conference center). “You need to lean forward and stay balanced,” she said.
  7. Be willing to get naked. Collaboration depends on a high degree of trust among all of the stakeholders, including funders and grantees. As one leader said, “We have to be willing to get naked together. And it takes me a long time to be willing to get naked with someone else.” Grantmakers should invest the time to build trust.
  8. Don’t ignore the power dynamics. Grantmakers have power over grantees. When grantmakers engage with grantees and potential grantees in a collaboration process the power dynamics between grantmaker and grantee are present. The impact those dynamcs have on a collaboration depends on how well they are addressed.
  9. Define success. One way to define a successful collaboration is if the parties continue to work together long after the grant expires. They continue to work together because together they create value that they cannot create on their own.
  10. Collaborate yourself. Funders who want to catalyze the collaboration of others should first be willing to collaborate with other funders. 

Chris Thompson sharing lessons at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Collaboration Conference in Houston in November.