Strategic co-funding: exploring funder collaboration


Hilary Pearson


Hilary Pearson

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) organized a convening of about 140 funders in Washington on 21 February to discuss a rapidly developing field of activity for many philanthropic players: increasing impact through co-funding. 

The format of the one-day conference was deliberately designed to maximize learning and interaction. It featured rapid-fire presentations by speakers commenting on their collaborative ‘cases’ or experiences, roundtable discussions in which participants took a ‘deeper dive’ into the details of a particular funder collaborative and discussed practical aspects of collaboration (including assessing readiness and persuading your trustees, through finding partners and strategies), and learning for improvement.

The opening comments by Jim Canales of the Irvine Foundation made the case for doing more co-funding. In his view, the philanthropic field as a whole is under-performing. But there is good news – networks now offer more opportunity than ever to create major social change. Canales noted three shifts that have to take place for co-funding to be considered:

  • Impact – a foundation must think beyond attribution to contribution.
  • Culture – field needs to move from taking controlled risks to taking considered risks.
  • Leadership – leaders need to be engaged in collaborative leadership rather than person-focused leadership.

The roundtable discussions focused on three forms of collaborations:

1. Pooled funding (funders contribute to a collective fund, which may be jointly administered by the group or by a lead donor or third party)

2. Targeted co-funding (funders deliberately but independently make grants to the same programme, organization or issue)

3. Strategic alignment (funders agree to adopt joint or complementary strategies in pursuit of a common goal, and put their resources toward aspects of that strategy)

Some shared insights:

  • Any collaboration is hard work; it’s absolutely essential to explore motivations and expectations upfront and to create trust in relationships before moving ahead.
  • Funders need to negotiate their roles and be willing to relinquish attribution (the ‘third rail’ of collaboration is losing the freedom to choose).
  • Funders must pay attention to creating the ‘backbone’ of a collaborative – collecting and aggregating information, connecting and informing partners, and planning next steps.
  • Funders can play an invaluable role in structuring learning by creating space for non-profit partners to work on problems together – eg providing space to meet, food, transportation to get people together.
  • Engaging trustees in the work is key – site visits, meeting other funders, sharing lessons.

The wrap-up conversation with Jean Case of the Case Foundation reinforced the theme expressed by Jim Canales: funders can take more risk and indeed must take more risk to bring about social change. Jean Case spoke about her foundation’s experience of reaching out, taking risks and achieving more. The Case Foundation, with its Be Fearless Campaign, is making a significant effort to communicate to the field the opportunities and impact of ‘being fearless’.

In Jean Case’s words: ‘It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-averse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet – thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks…. Turns out innovating is hard work anywhere and anytime. But if the philanthropic sector is transparent about mistakes and lessons along the way, and adapts as the situation calls for, hopefully we’ll all end up a little wiser and a little closer to solutions that can more effectively address the daunting challenges of our day.’

Hilary Pearson is president of Philanthropic Foundations Canada.

Tagged in: Collaboration Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Risk

Comments (2)

Meghan Duffy

We’re so pleased that you were able to attend the Co-Funding Convening, we hope you came away with helpful ideas and tools to strengthen your grantmaking! Resources from the Convening can be found on our website at Meghan Duffy Manager of Special Initiatives Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

The Case Foundation

Thanks for including the Case Foundation and Jean in your blog post! To learn more about Be Fearless, and to take the pledge, you can visit

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