Building Cross Sector Collaboration “Muscle”

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While several months back, May’s funder convening in Aspen showed that more grantmakers recognize that no single organization can go it alone when it comes to addressing social issues that are complex, dynamic and intersecting. With efforts like collective impact initiatives that are seeking to transform whole systems, grantmakers can play an essential role in encouraging and supporting nonprofits to work together to achieve better results. To borrow a term that came up many times during the forum, grantmakers are essential partners when it comes to building a community’s “civic muscle.”

For example, Stacey Stewart of United Way Worldwide shared how the United Way of Greater Milwaukee served as the backbone organization for an effort to reduce teen pregnancy in its community. The effort has been so successful in reducing this leading cause of poverty that the community was galvanized to tackle another pressing issue: infant mortality. By working with the community to build and flex its muscle to address one issue (teen pregnancy), the community built the capacity and confidence to take on another (infant mortality).

As much as funders would like to see more strategic collaboration among grantees, the reality for many nonprofits is that they do not have the time or resources to do collective work. Before grantmakers can help build the capacity (or muscle) to collaborate they need to reflect on how their own grantmaking practices promote unhealthy outcomes in nonprofits: hollow infrastructure, burnt out staff, or a mission that is stretched so thin that everything aligns with it.

Grantmakers often incentivize an individualized approach where organizations are forced to compete against each other for funding and recognition. Further, the structure of most grantmaker funding — small, program-restricted, one-year grants —  leaves little opportunity for nonprofit leaders to take a more strategic and long-term approach to their work and engage in the partnerships that will lead to greater impact.

In order to even consider collaborating, nonprofits need the time and space to build and strengthen their core, which not only includes their infrastructure and operations, but also their understanding of where they fit in their community — what do they offer the community that is unique? Who shares their mission? They also need flexible funding that gives them the organizational slack so that they can focus on building relationships and seeking out partnership opportunities.

If grantmakers want to support the type of collaboration that can evolve into strategic approaches to social change, like collective impact, here are some exercises to build that collaborative muscle:

  • Facilitate connections: Grantmakers often know what is happening on a given issue in a given place, who is doing what and where there might be opportunities for partnership. Grantmakers can capitalize on this vantage point by providing office space for collaborative meetings, providing staff with training in facilitation skills to become more effective conveners and network weavers and hosting convenings where nonprofits can come build relationships and learn from one another.
  • Offer flexible funding over the long term: Collective action doesn’t happen over a one-year program budget cycle. Discretionary funding allows collective efforts to be more nimble and adapt to new information. This funding can help leaders as they develop capacities for collaboration through leadership development support. Steady funding to organizations participating in aligned work can reduce competition among partners and help speed the process of trust building.
  • Explore the full range of resources to support collaboration: In addition to crucial financial resources, funders can use their reputational capital to attract attention and additional support to this effort, secure media coverage, and convene public and private sector partners. Grantmakers also can lend intellectual and technical support and expertise to community collaboratives to the extent that their staff and board members can offer valuable skills in facilitation, research, logistical support and more.

Before our communities can become collective impact heavyweights, we as grantmakers need to help create the conditions so that our communities can harness the power of reaching across the lines that too often divide organizations and sectors. By engaging partners to tap into new ideas and new resources we don’t just come closer to achieving our goals, but we increase our ability and our strength to take on even weightier issues the next time around.

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