We should do something together: 4 steps from cooperation to collaboration

It was trending before the pandemic hit, and now we’re seeing it in a new context. The word “collaboration” makes the news a lot in 2020, but do those recommending it understand what they’re asking?

I frequently see articles written by organizational experts and pundits with little experience in foundation or non-profit work predicting the future and offering advice about how best to respond to our changing world. Whenever there is a crisis in funding there are those who jump to the conclusion that foundations and nonprofits working together is not only necessary, but also easily accomplished.

Whenever there is a crisis … there are those who jump to the conclusion that foundations and nonprofits working together is not only necessary, but also easily accomplished.

I have been part of a number of conversations in the last few months about the value of donors collaborating on projects – both locally and internationally. While we often encourage our grantees to collaborate, it’s too often true that neither we nor they know what that means or what is expected. Like many words, it means something different in the mind of everyone involved, and we often start working on collaboration without taking the time to define it and get on the same page.

Years ago, I read a paper by the Council on Foundations about the several levels or the continuum of collaboration – from the slightest to the most serious. I think that paper is out of print but if someone found it that would save us all a good deal of misunderstanding, false starts, disappointments, unrealistic expectations, and hurt feelings. As I recall, there are four levels of cooperation and each is more complicated than the last.

The four levels

  1. First, there is information sharing. We come together to exchange information with little, if any, negotiation or agreement required. These shorter-term relationships exist without any clearly defined mission, structure, or planning effort. There are no expectations and nobody is walking out of the room with anything to do. A group of foundations in Dallas are doing exactly this by using a common application from nonprofits that allows the foundations to access information and decide individually whether or not they want to know more. 
  2. Next is what we call one-time funding partnerships. They are slightly more involved, often guided by an initiating donor and study groups of donors organized around a problem or issue where each donor reserves the right to fund independently. We have a common interest and want to know more about the issue itself and what others are doing and are willing to fund the research for a specific amount of time. 
  3. The third level is pooled funding. Donors commit a certain amount of funds for a set period of time to work toward solving a problem of common interest or a project that needs more money than a single donor can provide. This also is more complicated than one-time partnerships, as the issues and amounts need to be thoroughly discussed and time spent coming to an agreement on where best to place the money. There are many opinions about that, and a facilitation process is required for sorting out priorities and accommodating the different styles of giving. This is like a “family” of foundations coming together, and the dynamics are similar to any family. Procedures and processes are important. And these work best when there are existing relationships of trust and prior experience working together.
  4. The most difficult and sophisticated level of cooperation is true collaboration. In this stage, the funders are actually working together on an issue. They may even be seeking outside funding from other sources for a project that is bigger than their combined resources. At this level a high degree of planning and division of roles, along with open and consistent communication between funders and non-profits is required.

    Participants bring separate organizations into a new structure with full commitment to a common mission. Ideally, the funders would provide support for a staff person to manage the collaboration and all the communication and planning it requires. Everyone involved needs to be clear about the level of their commitment – not just as funders but as contributors to this entity that is bigger than a collection or network of funders. There is a mission to accomplish and that requires everyone being on the same page and committed to working through the changes and complications that are bound to arise.

So, think about what you want to do as you talk about cooperation with other funders or as you’re asking nonprofits to work together. Collaboration takes time and building trust. It’s difficult, but – done right – it is well worth it.

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