Why widespread philanthropic coordination is so elusive: Lessons from the sector


Melissa Stevens and Hilary McConnaughey


Time and again, there are clarion calls within the philanthropic sector for more coordination among funders – but so far, no remedy has endured.

When the Covid-19 pandemic upended our lives in early 2020, the world needed philanthropy more than ever. The philanthropic sector hoped this global emergency would spur more impactful and lasting coordination between funders – institutional and individual donors alike. The Milken Institute, together with Schmidt Futures and the Open Funders Research Group, and funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, stepped up to pilot an online platform and regular funder coordination calls seeking to accomplish exactly this. The fact that it failed to gain traction has prompted us to face some hard questions.

Why is it that philanthropic coordination is so challenging? How can the field help itself to improve at scale and meaningfully affect the kind of change that our charitable missions state? Our attempt at coordination offered some insightful lessons. 

The opportunity cost for philanthropy 

When philanthropy successfully collaborates, unique resources and expertise are leveraged, and capital can be unlocked at scale. For instance, the Baszucki, Brin, and Dauten families recently partnered with the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy and committed $150 million to launch Breakthrough Discoveries for thriving with Bipolar Disorder, the largest private investment focused on the study of bipolar disorder to address knowledge gaps in basic disease mechanisms as well as factors influencing clinical approaches and outcomes. This unprecedented opportunity is promising to help improve the lives of people with bipolar disorder and even those yet to be diagnosed.

Too often funders tend to be more interested in selling their own ideas rather than listening and buying into others.

Without coordination, however, inefficiencies and insular thinking can take hold. Covid-19 is just the most recent example of funders going it alone, often leading to the duplication of efforts and wasted resources. Unfortunately, the toll of this lack of coordination most hurts nonprofit beneficiaries, causing extra work and burden because of the misalignment of resources. 

Norms within the field of philanthropy hamper the prospect for sector-wide coordination. Too often funders tend to be more interested in selling their own ideas rather than listening and buying into others. Whether they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of opportunities, unwilling to be viewed as followers, believe they have the expertise in-house to go it alone, or simply lack the incentives to or practice of collaborating, funders tend to subscribe to fierce individualism, which has a high opportunity cost for the sector.

Lessons for funders

So, what would prompt enduring coordination among philanthropic actors?  

Trust is the first ingredient to collaboration, and trust can only transpire through sufficient, regular communication and rapport building. Individual funders must be willing to invest time and energy regularly – and not just during times of crisis – to establish connections with others and make space to listen and learn from each other. This requires open-mindedness, humility, and an acknowledgement that solutions can exist beyond our own walls.  

During crisis moments that call for philanthropic coordination, such as the pandemic, funders need to take a leap of faith and lean on peers to help source qualified opportunities, streamline due diligence processes, and perhaps even pool resources to amplify impact. Indeed, there can be strength not only in leading but in following the lead and due diligence of others.

Lessons for the sector

If greater communication and relationship building are the seeds for enhanced coordination in the field, then philanthropic support organizations can play a crucial role in helping this garden grow.

While various affinity groups serve different categories of donors, i.e., institutional funders, non-staffed family foundations, family offices, etc., community building across these groups is essentially nonexistent. While we create moments of connection, for instance during curated sessions at Milken Institute convenings, the need for collaboration at scale necessitates more steady and sustained practice.  

Philanthropy support organizations are primed to facilitate intentional connections within and even beyond their immediate networks and encourage funders of all kinds to interact and learn from each other on an ongoing basis. With an established rapport among funders, enduring coordination can, and will happen.  

What’s more, these support organizations can also serve as neutral thought leaders and ecosystem cartographers, creating objective roadmaps for solving entrenched problems and helping funders identify where they can jump in the carpool lane together on the path to progress. With this intelligence, funders can better identify peers with similar philanthropic priorities and perhaps even set the stage for coordinated funding strategies between multiple donors.  

‘If you want to go fast, go it alone. If you want to go far, go together’ is an adage often repeated in philanthropy. Going further together will only be possible if the hard work of building trust takes place, both at the individual funder level and across the ecosystem.  

The Stanford Social Innovation Review published a case study with more details on learnings from the Philanthropy Commons. Read it here. 

Melissa Stevens is executive vice president of philanthropy at the Milken Institute, leading its work with individual and family philanthropists and foundations seeking to deploy resources to make a transformative, sustainable impact. Hilary McConnaughey is an Associate Director at the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, where she advises institutional foundations, UHNW families, and corporate philanthropies.

Tagged in: Funding practice Transformation on the agenda

Comments (1)

Christopher A. Langston

Thank you for your observation - all sellers, no buyers. I've worked in philanthropy for over 25 years and I've seen this many times. I had a board member from the venture capital world who asked "do you syndicate your grants" but when we tried to buy into someone else's projects, he complained that it showed we didn't have good ideas. At an even larger scale, the Social Impact Exchange of the Growth Philanthropy Network (where I am board chair) initially suffered from all participants offering projects for scaling investments but no one wishing to buy into anyone else's project. Part of it is fear on the part of staff of being seen as useless. Part of the issue is that foundation's typically have strategies and populations of focus, so the mere fact that the opportunity is a good one, is not going to be sufficient - wrong state, wrong population, wrong issue are all legitimate barriers. But let me also raise an issue that plagues even a seemingly positive collaboration such this Bi-Polar initiative. The biggest funder in mental health research is the National Institute of Mental Health. It's annual budget is $2.2 billion. Not an initiative over X years, but it's annual budget each and every year. And while there may be quibbles about exactly which research topics and investigators get funding, it more or less pursues the same topics as this private initiative - genetics, proteomics, and investigator initiated research. Based on experience partnering with other institutes in NIH, I certainly believe that there is a role for private funding and partnerships with government. But the belief of wealthy donors and the advisors who get their ears that somehow private philanthropy can do better than public spending has virtually no evidence since Salk developed the polio vaccine. It may make donors feel small, but when your money is small (relatively), you have to spend it wisely and find its unique uses around the big player, not try to replicate the elephant in the room.

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