Funders need to push past politeness and hammer out expectations for how their collective action will create value – for beneficiaries, grantees, and themselves – beyond what they could do alone.
For more than a century, donors have pooled their resources to create change through community foundations and organizations like United Way Worldwide, immigrant mutual aid societies, and faith–based giving circles. In recent years, however, the scale of investment and number of independent funder collaboratives has accelerated dramatically. For example, more than 70 percent of aggregated giving funds – one type of collaborative – have emerged since 2000, with major funds like Blue Meridian Partners, Co–impact, and the END Fund springing up just in the last few years. Each of these has the goal of aggregating tens – or hundreds – of millions of dollars toward the most promising social sector initiatives.
Given this surge, and the corresponding power that donor–driven collaboratives are exerting in the sector, it’s no surprise that funder collaboration has been a subject of intense interest and inquiry. Our collaboration literature review identified more than 125 major articles and reports by practitioners and academics, including Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Cynthia Gibson and Anne MacKinnon of Grantcraft, Ralph Hamilton of the University of Chicago, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute, and some Bridgespan colleagues. These resources describe different types of collaborative models, the expected benefits of collaboration, and practices often associated with a collaborative’s success.
But our review also revealed important knowledge gaps, particularly around the foundational questions of whether funders should pursue collaborative action, and if so, what distinguishes failure from success. These gaps exist in part due to the inherent difficulty in studying collaboratives. There are no perfect control groups for comparison purposes, which makes it challenging to answer the most critical question: Are they worth the effort? Additionally, variation across collaboratives and reticence to speak openly about failure makes it hard to distill common success factors and pitfalls.