Building the Capacity for Collective Action


No organization (or issue) is an island, and central to collective impact is the recognition that achieving real impact means changing complex and dynamic systems. Yet, too much work happens in isolation. While funders might like to see more collaboration among their grantees, the reality is that too many nonprofits lack the opportunity and resources to engage in collective work. In the process of securing sufficient funding, mapping out sustainability plans, cultivating a “brand” and seeking recognition, the necessary work of collaboration often goes to the wayside.

If funders want to help spur collective action among the organizations they support then the first step is to examine how existing grantmaking processes exacerbate the prevailing “go it alone” mindset. The next step is to explore how, as a funder, you can help grantees build the skills, mindset and capacity to enable organizations to collaborate.

What are the capacities that can spark collaboration and that grantmaker should support? A handful from GEO’s publication include the following (please add others!):

Strong Leadership and an open mindset: Laying the groundwork to build and sustain collective action not only takes time and hard work, but also takes vigilance. In the networked organizations that GEO observed, staff and leadership of these organizations recognize that they are part of an ecosystem that is working toward a shared mission, so they actively try to understand, build and sustain connections within it.

Ability to share power and responsibility: Working effectively in partnership takes humility and willingness to trade control and power for a higher level of impact. As a result, participants actively practice the hard work of looking beyond the specific objectives of their own organizations toward bigger mission goals.

Adaptability and flexibility: Inevitably, cross-sector partnerships evolve, new partners bring new perspectives, priorities change and the external environment may shift. As a result, partners in a collaborative effort need to exercise a high level of “adaptive capacity,” defined by TCC Group as “the ability to monitor, assess, respond to, and stimulate internal and external changes.”

Strong connectivity and relationship building: Strong relationships are the bedrock of partnership. Organizations that are externally focused support their staff to reach out to others, even when their priorities or work may differ.

So, how can grantmakers help cultivate these capacities in the nonprofits they support? These capacities don’t come easily when simply surviving and meeting the needs of communities is the day-to-day priority. However, here are several approaches grantmakers can consider:

Help make connections, don’t force them: The relationships that make up the fabric of any collective impact effort work best when they evolve on their own — not by force. While a grantmaker’s vantage point may enable them to see across efforts and see areas of alignment, how they cultivate the connections they seek to make is critical. Rather than putting nonprofits in an uncomfortable position where they may feel forced to collaborate, a better approach is to play a connecting and convening role but to leave the nonprofits in the driver’s seat when it comes to exploring common interests and possible collaborative activities.

Offer core support and flexible, long-term funding to grantees: Laying the groundwork for collective action cannot be accounted for in a one-year program budget and it requires support that is flexible so that collaborative efforts are more nimble and adaptive. By providing steady “core” funding to organizations participating in aligned work, funders can also reduce competition among collaborative members for year-to-year project dollars and help speed the process of trust building.

Provide necessary resources to support and enable collaboration: Grantmakers can provide critical support for the logistics and operations of partnerships. Grantmakers can also bring multiple forms of capital to the work, such as bringing other funders to the table, securing media coverage for the work, convening government and business partners, and more. In some cases, funders also can lend intellectual and technical support and expertise to nonprofit collaboratives through facilitation, research and more.

Many nonprofits are tired of funders telling them they need to work together without providing any real incentives to do so. For funders of collective impact, giving grantees the right kind of support is critical to the survival of any effort. Grantmakers have an opportunity to propel the work of a collective forward by reexamining their own internal processes, understanding the capacities that nonprofits need to thrive in a collaboration and to direct the right resources to bolstering these capacities.

What do you think? Share your thoughts and comments below.


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