How foundations join forces for better philanthropy


Katie Wehr and Elana Ludman


We work hundreds of miles apart, separated by the border but our two organizations – the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation in Canada and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in the US -have formed a collaboration that is accelerating our efforts to bring about change in our respective countries.

Despite our many differences, our organizations are wrestling with similar conundrums. For example, both foundations want to better support and engage indigenous people. As the McConnell Foundation worked with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami to develop an Inuit-specific approach to early childhood developmental screening and assessment, RWJF’s expertise in this area was invaluable.

The McConnell Foundation’s experience thinking about how schools can make well-being part of their DNA and insights from their WellAhead initiative, which is helping to better understand how to integrate social and emotional well-being into school culture, practices and environments, has been incredibly helpful to RWJF as it expands its focus beyond healthy school meals and physical activity, and takes more of a ‘whole child, whole school, whole community’ approach.

This collaboration is not about pitching an idea or looking for funding. We simply want to learn from one another in order to become better, more strategic funders.

While our collaboration began with a few conversations here and there, it really blossomed under the skillful convening of the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX).

SIX convenes a global collective of over 50 of the world’s leading philanthropies to explore how to best support social innovation. This peer group is a natural fit for our two organizations, eager to learn more from one another and other colleagues abroad.

Of course, there are many funder collaboratives organized across geographies and around issues, as well as groups that help their members navigate the day-to-day logistics of operating a foundation.

But the SIX model is different. It uses the notion of a bee hive to allow relationships, and ultimately innovation, to flourish. It creates space to examine the type of change you want to see and HOW you are working toward it. It brings social innovators together and nurtures their connections to help them pollinate new ideas and solutions. But there is no queen bee and no beekeeper. There are no hierarchies. There’s no set roadmap. We merely had to enter into these conversations with an open mind and a spirit of learning around the issues we cared about.

Today, our organizations view each other as a ‘critical friend’ – a trusted partner we can turn to for a reality check when we need one, as well as for problem-solving.

We’re also working together in concrete, tangible ways. For example, McConnell Foundation staffers have served as advisors and reviewers on a series of proposals for RWJF on creating healthy places for kids and their families. And the McConnell Foundation is likely to run a parallel process in Canada, based on what we learn in the U.S.

Our hope is that this is just the beginning, and we’re learning as we go.

First, we’ve learned that any kind of collaboration takes time and patience, and recognition that your partner organization may sometimes be slowed by shifts in strategy or staff transitions. It also takes leadership and dedication across staff levels to fuel the fire.

And it takes understanding and openness. What’s unique when collaborating across borders is the need to appreciate and respect cultural differences: even between our two countries that are so geographically close, our societal norms and policy landscapes vary significantly.

But it’s worth it!

We’ve seen the value of a global learning exchange and a deeper relationship with philanthropic organizations in other nations. We encourage other funders to think about their learning goals and who they can better connect with beyond their borders. We’re excited to find out just what is possible when foundations start connecting and collaborating in new ways.

Katie Wehr is Senior Program Officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Elana Ludman was the Social Innovation Advisor at the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation.

Comments (1)

Carolyn Arnister

I love the beehive metaphor. Keep it alive, Katie. Carolyn Arnister

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