From rhetoric to reality: practicing partnership in philanthropy

Anna Hirsch-Holland

The rhetoric on the need for partnership to increase our impact is deafening, but what does it mean in practice?

Philanthropists are increasingly recognising that they can only achieve innovation and impact by supporting and working in partnership across societal sectors. Since 2020, The Partnering Initiative – an NGO dedicated to supporting multi-stakeholder collaboration – has been working to understand and evolve the role of philanthropy in supporting partnership for sustainable and transformational development.

We have found that this role is multifaceted – from creating trusted partnerships with and between grantees, to catalyzing collective action across sectors by spearheading multi-stakeholder partnerships or collaborative platforms that can deliver system transformation. Indeed, philanthropy is uniquely positioned to promote and scale effective partnerships – able to draw on flexible funding and innovative finance models, as well as technical expertise, reputation and influence, and diverse cross-sectoral networks. But what does this entail, in practice?

Being deliberate and strategic about the type of partnerships to pursue

Early in TPI’s programme on Partnering for Philanthropic Impact, we developed a conceptual framework to help foundations think through the different partnering strategies they could adopt linking to the social change goals they hope to achieve. The framework comprises four models of partnership[1].

Four key models for foundation partnering. Visuals credit: The Partnering Initiative


First, foundations can seek to become a Trusted Partner to their grantees: this means moving away from transactional, project-based funding to longer-term trusted relationships – typically involving support to core costs of grantees and contributing more than just finance, such as access to technical expertise, organisational development support, and networks or platforms for influence. This approach has many parallels with trust-based philanthropy[2], including necessitating an honest and deliberate examination of power dynamics within the relationship. As well as addressing inequities in the sector, it can also help to deliver more relevant and effective social impact by providing a safe space for organisations to experiment and innovate, and new capacities and resources to move beyond business as usual.

The second model, Connector, involves a foundation exploring and supporting collaboration between grantees where this can enhance their (and therefore the foundation’s) impact. Of course, working in a competitive and often siloed social sector, grantees are rarely banging on the door of their funders asking for grants to work with each other, and so it takes a concerted effort, dedicated resources, and a clear strategic focus to make this happen successfully.

While the first two models largely focus on partnership with and between grantees – typically civil society organisations – the next two models in the framework focus on partnerships involving multiple societal sectors, which is essential if the funder wants to support transformational or systemic change. The Supporter model sees a philanthropic organisation supporting (through funding and otherwise), and potentially participating in, a multi-stakeholder partnership. This could result from a specific funding call launched by the Foundation, or the Foundation might choose to support a multi-stakeholder initiative led by others. But what sets it apart from the previous models is that it involves multiple types of organisations coming together around a shared goal, with philanthropy supporting that to happen.

The shift to a partnership approach is not an easy one and nor is it without costs – both material and otherwise – but it is a journey that increasing numbers of philanthropic actors see they must take to deliver more transformational impact.

Finally, the Systems Leader model is the most complex and probably the most ambitious partnering strategy that a philanthropic organisation might take on. In this model, the funder puts the full weight of its reputation and influence behind a complex problem, as well as providing funding, technical expertise, and convening power for the infrastructure required to build up and nurture an ongoing multi-stakeholder partnership or partnership platform to address the target problem area. Essentially, philanthropy is investing in the soil that enables the plants to grow, as well as the plants themselves.

As TPI’s programme has evolved, the framework outlined above has been consistently affirmed as a useful way of thinking through how philanthropic entities can leverage partnership for their social impact goals. However, in our conversations and exchanges with diverse philanthropic actors, we’ve also evolved our thinking on how the framework can be applied – and identified some key areas in which practice is evolving to operationalise these different partnership strategies.

Leveraging the role of different kinds of philanthropic agents in driving partnership and collaboration

While the framework was originally developed specifically with individual philanthropic foundations in mind, we are learning that it also applies to other types of philanthropic actors, notably intermediary organisations, such as philanthropy networks and collaboratives. These can be pivotal and sometimes better placed than individual philanthropic foundations to drive partnership at scale – particularly (but not only) in contexts with nascent but rapidly growing philanthropic sectors.

For example, in India, the mandatory 2 per cent CSR contribution by corporations has essentially made corporate philanthropy compulsory. Neera Nundy, co-founder and managing partner of India-based ecosystem builder Dasra, has spoken of the growing momentum in Indian philanthropy for collaboration, but with it the need for platforms: ‘corporate donors, as well as family givers, are seeking the support of network organisations such as Dasra, which provide the infrastructure not only to pool funds but to apply these to ambitious and strategic collaborations that bring together civil society, government, and the private sector.’ A similar dynamic has been observed in Eastern Europe – for example, the Bulgarian Donors Forum notes an increasing number of corporate donors working through civil society organisations to develop the partnerships required for their CSR initiatives, leading to ‘more efficient achievement of results and less administrative burden for each of the partners’.

Meanwhile, across Asia funders are seeking to leverage the power of intermediary organisations – such as the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network – to promote trusted partnerships with grantees. Jasmine Chew of the Macquarie Group Foundation, which is one of the pioneer funders of the AVPN pooled funds, explains, ‘it is very encouraging to observe through conversations with the grantees that unlocking unrestricted funding has helped them to position themselves as a trusted partner towards advancing system change in their country of work. This transformation goes beyond the role of a foundation, but also highlights how networks, intermediaries and impact organisations can transform.’

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to promote and scale effective partnerships – able to draw on flexible funding and innovative finance models, as well as technical expertise, reputation and influence, and diverse cross-sectoral networks.

Outside of Asia, this sentiment has similarly been echoed by Mitali Wroczynski, Associate Director of Partnerships at Co-Impact, where she sees part of the organisation’s role is to influence both its funder partners and the wider philanthropic sector to think differently about how to give – especially to give more flexibly so that programme (grantee) partners can ‘achieve systemic impact and move beyond unsustainable short-term change’. This includes supporting programme partners themselves to ‘nurture partnerships’[3].

Key areas of evolving practice to make equitable, impactful collaboration more than a pipe dream

The shift to a partnership approach is not an easy one and nor is it without costs – both material and otherwise – but it is a journey that increasing numbers of philanthropic actors see they must take to deliver more transformational impact. In the process, they are recognising that to maximise the potential of partnerships they must change the way they think and operate. We are seeing exciting examples of emerging practice, but there is still a great deal of work to be done to evolve this into best practice.

Creating and supporting equitable relationships within multi-stakeholder partnerships. At the level of bilateral trusted partnerships (the first model in the TPI framework), an emerging practice in trust-based philanthropy supports many elements of a trusted partnership strategy. However, things become more complicated when the ambition is to support multi-stakeholder, multi-sector partnerships aimed at systems change. In particular, the power dynamics – a key consideration in trust-based philanthropy – take on a new level of complexity as multiple partners bring different types and quantities of resources to the table. One issue, for example, is when a foundation entrusts one of its grantee partners with a partnership-building role that also includes re-granting, thereby shifting power to that partner in relation to other ‘downstream’ partners, which are typically smaller organisations unable to access funding directly.

Local or historical context and culture can also be a complicating factor in the development of trusting and equitable partnerships – for example, Joanna Marinova, Executive Director of Bulgaria’s Lachezar Tsotsorkov Foundation, notes that ‘much of the language around collaborations, cooperatives, and movement building is tainted by the memory of the communist rule; this creates even on an unconscious level a public recoiling from such [collaborative] initiatives’.

Effectively managing and supporting complex partnerships. There are important questions around the ‘backbone’ organisations that ensure the effective and smooth operating of complex partnerships and partnership platforms. In our work we have identified diverse approaches to this – from a foundation taking on this role itself (oftentimes underestimating the time, resources, and skillset required), to outsourcing this either to a third party or one (or several) of its grantee partners. Similarly, intermediary organisations can take on this role – such as Dasra, mentioned above. Each approach brings its own challenges. For example, when the ‘backbone’ organisation is also involved in grant-giving, how does it balance its grant management role with its partnership management role? And if the role is outsourced to a local organisation, how can a funder identify those that have the right positioning and reputation vis-à-vis the other partners, and the requisite skills and networks to play this role effectively? Moreover, how can a funder calculate the time and resources required for this role in different types of multi-stakeholder partnership?

There is interesting emerging practice in this area; for example, one of the corporate foundations TPI has worked with invites its partners and backbone organisations to take part in 6-8 month learning journeys on systems leadership, to develop the facilitation skills that are needed for an effective partnership platform. However, this same foundation has talked off-record about how challenging it is to find the neutral brokers required for the backbone role.

Designing a funding process which promotes partnerships that deliver net value. Some funders are looking at how to transform grant mechanisms, processes, staff skillsets and the mindsets that underlie or support those, to promote partnerships that deliver more than the sum of their parts. Competitive funding mechanisms built on bilateral relationships with (potential) grantees can encourage siloed working by inviting applications for funding in which applicants have to set out their individual roles in addressing an issue or providing a solution. However, the alternative – inviting joint applications for partnerships projects, for example – can encourage ‘forced marriages’ of partners which do not unlock the added value, ‘the alchemy’, that partnerships can deliver, instead achieving no more (or even less) than the sum of the parts along with extra transaction costs. Investing time and resources in ‘partnership building’ is required, and a critical part of this must be to identify the collaborative advantage and additional value (including innovation, efficiency, and activating the critical levers for system transformation) that can be achieved through collaboration. While many foundations (rightly) put great emphasis on measuring the impact of their individual grantees, we have yet to see a deliberate attempt or specific methodology for measuring the extent and expected added value of collaboration (as well as its transaction costs) – both at the outset of awarding a grant and thereafter.

The quest to unlock the secrets of collaboration in philanthropy

For funders with ambitions to support collaboration which truly contributes to systems change, evolving these three areas of practice is a must. When TPI set out to explore how foundations could leverage the power of partnership, we did not imagine how much resonance this would have in the philanthropic sector – but recent crises including Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine have made the imperative to partner even more urgent. Seeing this impressive appetite for partnership, TPI will be continuing its quest to help develop the best practices required: supporting philanthropic organisations to become Fit For Partnering, facilitating peer exchange and learning on the topic of philanthropic partnering, and researching and piloting partnering approaches and tools that are bespoke for the philanthropic sector. In the spirit of collaboration, we invite you to join us!

Anna Hirsch-Holland is Programme Director for Funder Impact at The Partnering Initiative, an NGO founded in 2003, and one of the world’s longest-established organisations dedicated to multi-stakeholder partnering. Driven by a passionate belief that only through collaboration across societal sectors can we achieve a prosperous economy, thriving societies and a healthy environment, TPI is a pioneer in the field of partnership – combining cutting-edge partnering theory with direct action to drive effective partnering globally.


  1. ^ See the full report in which this model is developed: Partnering for Philanthropic Impact, The Partnering Initiative, 2021
  2. ^ Trusted partnership: pushing the boundaries of traditional grant-making and trust-based philanthropy. Alliance magazine, 28 July 2022. Anna Hirsch-Holland
  3. ^ More information on how Co-Impact does this can be found in their Handbook

Comments (0)

James Clarks

Thanks for your sharing about this useful news and geometry dash lite. When TPI set out to explore how foundations could leverage the power of partnership, we did not imagine how much resonance this would have in the philanthropic sector

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