Reflecting on the Role of Grantmakers


Grantmakers are critical partners in collective impact efforts. More than just funders, grantmakers can help catalyze connections and lay the groundwork for initiatives to take shape. Because of the power dynamics inherent in the relationship between grantmakers and grantees, grantmakers must be mindful of the role they play.

In an article in the Collective Impact Forum’s “Collective Insights About Collective Impact supplement in Stanford Social Innovation Review, I offered three recommendations for grantmakers involved in collective impact efforts, based on lessons learned from the experiences of members of the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations community:

  1. Understand and balance partners’ varied needs,
  2. Catalyze connections with care, and
  3. Fund the costs of collaboration.

The following examples and questions can help spark conversations within your organization to ensure you are being an effective partner in collective impact initiatives.

1. Understand and balance partners’ varied needs

Successful partnerships recognize that everyone involved expects both to contribute and to receive a benefit from participating. In collective impact initiatives, grantmakers form partnerships with other grantmakers, grantees and others, which require an understanding of partners’ needs and motivations.

Example: As a funder of the Central Appalachian Network, the  Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation paid attention to the types of support other grantmakers provided and then stepped up to provide multiyear general operating support to individual organizations that were part of the network as well as to the network as a whole to help ensure its long-term success. That funding filled important gaps in support, such as network coordination functions and capacity building.

Questions to consider:

  • What is my vision for this work? What assumptions do I bring?
  • What is my organization most interested in supporting? What needs won’t be met?
  • How flexible am I willing to be?
  • Where might my organization add unique value to the initiative?
  • What do I know about my funding partners’ interests and needs?

2. Catalyze connections with care

Grantmakers have a unique big-picture view of what’s happening on issues and in communities that can help to catalyze collective impact initiatives. Grantmakers can take advantage of this position by connecting nonprofits with each other and by using their convening power to bring diverse groups of stakeholders together. However, grantmakers must realize that it is most effective to offer the connections and then step back to see what emerges, rather than force connections or mandate strategies.

Example: When Learning Network members were determining strategy, staff of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation decided that it was better to literally walk away rather than unduly influence the strategy. When the foundation staff left the room, the group moved in a different direction. The foundation accepted and supported the new plan, demonstrating trust in its partners.

Questions to consider:

  • What knowledge or connections do I have that could be valuable to the initiative?
  • How am I balancing the need to catalyze connections with the necessity not to force them?
  • How do we bring diverse voices to the table in an authentic way?
  • How open are we to the contributions and ideas of others?
  • Do collective impact partners have the trust in each other required to work together?

3. Fund the costs of collaboration

A critical way for grantmakers to lend support to collective impact efforts is to help cover the costs of keeping a collaboration running. This support can take a variety of forms, such as funding the backbone function, supporting capacity building, covering the costs of evaluation or supporting conventions, research or other costs. In addition, unrestricted support allows organizations the flexibility to adapt their collective impact initiative to changing circumstances.

Example:  To support the Discovery Initiative, the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund supports activities essential to collaboration, such as peer networking, technical assistance and consultation.

Questions to consider:

  • How are we covering the time and expenses this collaboration requires?
  • Are we giving appropriate resources and attention to evaluation for this initiative?
  • What are we doing to ensure the long-term sustainability of this initiative?
  • Does this initiative have the flexibility it needs to adapt to changing circumstances?

Providing a Stable Platform for Success

Being an effective partner in collective impact requires flexibility, long-term commitment and a willingness to share power and decision-making with others. This is often quite different from the average grantmaker-grantee relationship. By reflecting on our own assumptions, values and practices, grantmakers can make sure we are playing a role that supports the success of a collective impact initiative.


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