Do it yourself versus collaboration


Manny Amadi


From the US Presidential elections, to Brexit and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the choice between going it alone or working collaboratively with other actors appears to be one of the dominant strategic issues of 2016. Perhaps unsurprisingly, international foundations too face this strategic choice of the moment.

For the most part, international foundations are founded by ambitious individuals or corporations, most of whom have accumulated significant wealth. Combining this wealth with a compelling passion to address social or environmental issues, foundations are often vehicles for realizing the ambitions of their founders. Considering the competitive instinct of many of their entrepreneur founders, it is perhaps striking that foundations large and small have often looked to collaborating with others.

But what is happening in the world of foundations today – and what choices are they making between DIY and collaboration?

In late spring, I had the opportunity to facilitate two events held in New York and London, convened by Stars Foundation, in which nearly twenty American and European-based mid-size grant-giving foundations explored opportunities for cross-funder collaboration.

The landscape is changing rapidly for philanthropic foundations
Of course, discussions about whether or not to collaborate have to be undertaken within the context in which foundations are operating. A number of trends are consistently affecting foundations in their international work.

On the demand side these include increasing demands and pressures on foundation funding as the trajectory of state funding reduces; increasing limitations on civil society organisations (CSOs); funders increasingly being asked to act as advocates for NGOs; and  the increasing prevalence of emergencies (an area in which foundation funding has traditionally been low) is leading to more questions on how private philanthropy can play a greater role.

Numerous changes are also occurring on the supply side, from the entry of more players in the foundation space, the growth of the private banking and wealth advisory sector; and the shifting role of larger NGOs becoming ‘donors’ to small, locally-based NGOs & CSOs; to the changing role of large foundation players such as the Ford Foundation, some of whom are shifting from service delivery models to focus on advocacy, thus causing smaller organisations to consider the impact on their offers and portfolios. There are also the more ‘technical’ evolutions, such as the continuing growth in high-impact, social impact investment and financial mechanisms that are driving more thought on how best to measure impact.

International foundations are determined to be seen as a major force in the development arena
Long perceived as ‘ATMs’ in the development arena, foundations are keen to play an enhanced role within the development system. The explicit call for partnership within the SDGs (Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals) and the UN’s recognition that foundations work locally and internationally with small and large non-profits and others to address a wide range of issues is strongly welcomed by the foundation community.

The foundations gathered recognised that they could more effectively play their part by pooling their knowledge and sharing insights with each other, as well as by collaborating with other actors, whether CSOs or governments. It was recognised too, that building links bi-laterally, or through networks, would be important. It is this recognition that is driving the rise in the number of funder groups – from Elevate Children Funders’ Group, and the European Foundations Forum, to NetFWD.

A strong and growing appetite for collaboration
As Stars Foundation framed it:

Donor collaborations allow individual donors, foundations or government agencies to access partners’ expertise, gain sufficient ‘voice’ to pursue high-level changes, leverage capital for larger scale and allow partners to take on big agendas, tougher issues, and longer-term challenges.

Well-executed collaborations are bigger than the sum of their parts; they magnify each partner’s contribution collectively yielding results well beyond the reach of single donors.

Some of the different models for collaboration were explored, including a model developed by Packard Foundation. It mapped a collaboration journey, starting with knowledge exchange at the ‘lower integration’ end of the spectrum, to creating a new entity at the ’higher integration’ end of the spectrum.

The organizations also explored how they could better share due diligence data and work with one another to impart knowledge and expertise, seek to become more efficient grant makers, and strengthen local NGOs through stronger leverage and donor collaboration. A number of opportunities for collaborating emerged – many on exchanging information and learning – whilst some bi-lateral co-funding opportunities between foundation partners were also sparked. All of these were based on clearly defined operating principles and values, and key amongst these were transparency, equity between partners, as well as a focus on adding value to the beneficiaries of the parties involved.

Human trafficking (modern slavery) emerged as a hot topic for foundations
In the end, any decision to collaborate will be strongly influenced by a deep alignment of interests. In particular, human trafficking – more engagingly labelled modern slavery – was highest on the agenda.

The UN Guiding principles on Business and Human Rights has, since its adoption in 2011, placed human rights high on the agenda of major businesses. Some governments now place a legal requirement on companies to disclose each year the steps they are taking to ensure the absence of modern slavery within their operations and supply chains. The forthcoming Corporate Human Rights Benchmark seeks to rank the world’s largest publicly listed companies on their human rights performance. As a result of these, companies are grappling with the issue of human trafficking at the same time as it appears high on the agenda for foundations.

It is therefore difficult not to reflect that both actors could learn a great deal from each other on this subject. There is clearly an opportunity for convening, nurturing and escalating knowledge-sharing and effective collaboration in this important area.

So, is it DIY or collaboration for international foundations?
The choice between DIY and collaboration is not mutually exclusive. But many foundations increasingly realize that collaboration can help them get to their goals faster, and ultimately secure greater outcomes for the causes they exist to address.

In order to collaborate successfully, foundations will of course have to navigate the challenges that are inherent in collaborations of any kind, but regardless of these, the benefits have surpassed the attraction of DIY. This is good news for the SDGs’ call for strengthened partnerships, a call which can be paraphrased as “stronger together”. No political pun intended in this era of DIY v collaboration.

Manny Amadi is CEO of C&E Advisory.

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