Funders working together – the increasing interest in this approach in Canada denotes the coming to maturity of Canadian philanthropy. This was one of the conclusions of a symposium on the topic organized by Philanthropic Foundations Canada in Montreal in mid-October.
A decade ago, such a gathering of funders in Canada would have been only thinly attended. But much has changed, in Canada as in other parts of the philanthropic world, as the issues addressed by philanthropy become more complex and approaches more ambitious.
Compelling new Canadian examples of funder collaboration such as the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada have emerged only recently but are gaining traction rapidly. The time seemed right for a sharing of ideas and experiences about what it takes to make funder collaboration work effectively. And, judging by the attention and the resources now being brought to the table, the best days of funder collaboration are ahead of us in Canada.
Some of the key ideas about funder collaboration articulated by symposium participants that particularly struck me:
- The need for skilful leadership that alternates between shepherding and championing collaborative activity – both roles are important. It’s a push rather than a pull effort.
- The importance of ‘taking the time that it takes’ – time upfront to clarify goals, time to build trust, time to acknowledge and accommodate differences in cultures, accountabilities and expectations.
- The importance of maintaining flexibility all through the collaborative experience – this helps to negotiate changes in context, unexpected barriers, surprising outcomes and different players.
- The importance of building in reflection and developmental evaluation, particularly in a long-term collaboration.
- The need for creativity. Funder collaborations are not just about money – it’s not the pooling of funds but the pooling of perspectives, ideas and insights. Collaboration can be as much about framing a problem as it is about bringing money to the table – it’s paying attention to what matters.
- The best collaboration requires a combination of discipline and ambiguity, with clarity about goals, but openness to strategies and timing. Differences can be sidestepped by having different timing attached to different strategies, as long as the ultimate goal does not vary.
- Collaboration for results requires an unwavering focus and agreement about the goal of the collaboration, right from the outset.
- Good collaboration takes expert skills in management and communication – you may need to rethink the people and talents you need to bring to the table as a funder.
- And finally, the importance of articulating an exit strategy or a process for getting to the next phase. Collaboration is not forever and it is better to fix the conditions for the end at the beginning, as part of setting goals and establishing trust.
Hilary Pearson is president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada.
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