Worth the membership dues?

Alliance magazine

Other articles in this special feature have emphasized the value of networks in the natural world. Can a similar case be made for philanthropy networks – by which we mean here membership associations? They are a familiar feature of the philanthropy landscape – there are 75 donor associations with staff in the US alone. But is this considerable presence justified? Alliance asked a number of both funders and leaders of these groups what they expect from them, why they work, and when they don’t.

Even in philanthropy, the type and size of networks vary considerably but, as we’ll see, the problems they face and the things that make them successful are remarkably similar. There are those with a very specific focus like the European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA), which wants to help build ‘the venture philanthropy and social investment sector throughout Europe’ or the Philippines’ League of Corporate Foundations, which aims ‘to promote the strategic practice of corporate social responsibility and contribute to its practice in the Philippines’. The Arab Foundations Forum has a regional focus: ‘to strengthen Arab philanthropy … and to strengthen the impact of the Arab philanthropic sector by promoting strategic giving and the socially responsible conduct of foundations.’ By contrast, the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS) has a global reach, and is a sort of meta-network, an association of associations.

What they do – or should do
Krasimira Velichkova of the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum sees philanthropy associations as ‘a safe space for donors where they can freely share their ideas, experiences, problems and visions’. Akwasi Aidoo hopes that the various networks TrustAfrica supports – some of which are regional like the African Grantmakers Network or the European Foundation Centre, some national like the Council on Foundations – ‘will help make a forest out of the disparate trees of philanthropic organizations and institutions’. Like most of our respondents, he notes their purpose to serve ‘as knowledge hubs, providing space for comfortable conversations about tough and uncomfortable issues, and offering a level playing field for all (both small and large)’. He also adds another purpose, countering a threat that not all respondents will have to face: ‘They can also help “defend” the interests and work of its members against unjustified interference by political authorities.’

The Hewlett Foundation is a confirmed supporter of networks. It supports what it terms issue-based groups (eg the Environmental Grantmakers Association – see below), identity-based groups (eg Asian America-Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy) and sector-wide networks (eg the Council on Foundations). The reason, say Jacob Harold and Kelly Born, is that they ‘are convinced of the critical role they play in helping the field share knowledge and in facilitating better collaboration across organizations with common goals’.

Mama Cash, says Nicky McIntyre, provides a modest annual contribution to ARIADNE, the European human rights network, because it sees it as ‘an important platform for engaging with peers in Europe around human rights and social justice issues’. She goes on: ‘In Europe, there isn’t a strong tradition of having a “philanthropic community” among foundations, let alone those interested in human rights and social justice. We see ARIADNE as uniquely positioned to take on this role and to develop a European perspective on human rights grantmaking.’

Developing relationships
Membership associations create the conditions for relationships between members. This is important but not easily measurable. ‘All events enable networking – which is essential and well received by our members and non-members,’ says Sue Daniels of the European Association for Philanthropy and Giving (EAPG), which hosted over 26 events throughout the UK and Europe last year. The Environmental Grantmakers Association is committed to ‘nurturing and expanding environmental funding, creating a relaxed atmosphere to develop relationships and push each other to work more effectively together’, says Rachel Leon. ‘At the end of the day, our members connecting to each other and collaborating is where the magic happens.’

One of the three main roles for funder networks, according to Jon Cracknell of Goldsmith Family Philanthropy, is to provide ‘a safe space to discuss effectiveness and a platform for potential collaborations’. The other two are research and expanding the funding base. The Goldsmith family supports a variety of funder networks, including the UK-based Environmental Funders Network.

Exchange of ideas and information

Funders can waste money doing the same things when they don’t communicate and collaborate, says Nicky McIntyre. If networks unite organizations working in different but related areas, they can bring together a great diversity of ideas. Human rights and social justice funders might seem like a small niche, she says, but a great variety of interests are involved and networks like ARIADNE ‘create the space to engage with peers who are not in the exact same field, but with whom you do have common ground … we need to challenge each other and draw from each other’s work to become better at our own’.

Learning is paramount, too, for Nick Deychakiwsky of the Mott Foundation: ‘Learning is the main point – learning from each other leads to greater capacity, effectiveness and impact. But learning occurs much better when relationships get established and knowledge is shared.’ In addition, he believes, networks create ‘greater public awareness of the role and effect of philanthropy in society … allowing others to “plug in” to philanthropy and to critique it as well.’ They can also lead to ‘opportunities to act collectively.’

Regional aims and advocacy

These general observations apart, each network has its own specific goals, even if few are as large and ambitious as WINGS’ aim, which, says Helena Monteiro, is to ‘grow a strong, global philanthropic community that works to build more equitable and just societies around the world’.

Grupo de Fundaciones y Empresas (Group of Foundations and Enterprises; GDFE) wants to ‘promote and professionalize private social investment in Argentina’, says Carolina Langan, while the Arab Foundations Forum is part of what Luma Hamdan and Atallah Kuttab describe as ‘an effort to establish a discourse for philanthropy in the Arab region’. At present, they explain, it is ‘charity-oriented, mostly state sponsored, ill-studied and patronizing’, while ‘the new philanthropy thrust driven by a surge in private sector foundations is guided mainly by Anglo-Saxon discourse which is not rooted in the local culture’.

Associations also have some very specific achievements to their credit. Over the last five years, says Krasimira Velichkova, the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum ‘has advocated for the removal of VAT on charitable SMSs’, one of the favourite ways of donating in Bulgaria. The campaign was successful and in September the tax was abolished. Regular WINGS surveys of the global philanthropy scene, says Helena Monteiro, ‘along with its partnership with the Global Philanthropy Leadership Initiative and a new and exciting partnership with the Foundation Center, are producing the convincing baseline evidence needed to argue for better legislative and regulatory frameworks to build a culture of giving’.

Strength – and weakness – in diversity

For Krasimira Velichkova, it is paradoxical that ‘the biggest potential of the network is also its weakness, or at least its limitation. The more the network grows, the more delicate and time-consuming becomes the communication and coordination between the members.’

Rachel Leon of the Environmental Grantmakers Association and Kurt Peleman of the European Venture Philanthropy Association see a similar paradox. EGA is a very diverse group, described by Leon as ‘a big tent of environmental philanthropy’ including ‘all kinds of foundations from family to private to public to corporate to individual donors’. ‘Our members work on dozens of different issues and with a multitude of different approaches and strategies,’ says Leon. ‘It is both a strength and a limitation, as we have to make choices about what we will focus on and how broad we will be.’

‘The diversity of our network – 21 countries, very different types of investors, all active in a broad range of sectors – brings its own challenges,’ says Peleman. ‘What can you create that is “common” enough to offer sufficient value to all members?’ And, conversely, ‘how much do you segment your services while still keeping enough in common?’ As we will see, this tension between meeting the needs of all members and keeping everyone interested is a universal one.

The Philippines’ League of Corporate Foundations has 77 member organizations of different sizes and from various industries, and, says, Helen Orande, ‘maximizing the [CSR] potential of … members requires a huge effort, which can be difficult given their varying natures.’ It can also be challenging for organizations from a commercial background ‘to create an environment for cooperation’. She describes an experience that will be familiar to all those involved in networks: ‘being constantly pulled between trying to be responsive and adaptable and not compromising its values’.

Diversity can also result in language difficulties. Akwasi Aidoo laments the inability of the networks he is familiar with to provide information in multiple languages, with the result that some members ‘literally require a dictionary to talk with each other’. Against this, as Helena Monteiro points out, being members of an organization helps to creates a common identity. ‘By participating in the WINGS network, members develop a similar culture, language and values, which makes it easier for them to work together.’

Failings of associations
Whatever the virtues of associations in theory, they are not always realized in practice. There is ‘too little sharing of experience’, remarks Jon Cracknell. While individual foundations commission evaluations, they seldom share the results with peer groups. He also believes ‘we are too polite’. Discussions tend to take the form of issue briefings, while the more difficult conversations ‘about how to effect change, where power is concentrated, etc’ are avoided. These are serious omissions, especially in light of other respondents’ views that one of the great potential virtues of networks is to allow individual members to draw from a common well of experience and to take debate forward into what is often thornier terrain.

Despite Hewlett’s enthusiasm for networks in principle, they often fail to capitalize on their potential, say Jacob Harold and Kelly Born, because ‘they don’t exploit the potential synergies and leverage economies of scale’. Instead of stressing ‘the differences that inhibit collaboration and enhanced impact’, they would do better to focus on ‘common goals, methods and practices’.

The resource question
‘We are limited by our resources,’ says Sue Daniels of the European Association for Philanthropy and Giving. ‘To counter this, we actively involve our board and members in programming and advocacy.’ What Akwasi Aidoo calls ‘financial fragility’ is especially pertinent at the moment when, under the strain of hard times, member organizations are cutting their budgets. Nick Deychakiwsky describes the lack of sufficient resources as a ‘typical’ weakness of networks. Participants, he believes, ‘are only able or willing to invest so much because to them it is mostly an addition to their main work’. Luma Hamdan and Atallah Kuttab complain that ‘local donors are usually keener to support individual organizations rather than infrastructure networks’. Kurt Peleman finds ‘responding to all the requests of our members and planning future strategic moves with limited resources’ a challenge. This is partly offset, he says, by ‘engaging our members and our board to work with us towards our common goals’.

Deychakiwsky notes, too, something which he thinks is peculiar to philanthropy networks. Since they aren’t susceptible to market pressure, ‘it becomes easier for networks to be created which in a market setting might not have been. That then leads to sustainability issues as “going out of business” seems to be harder in the philanthropy/non-profit world than for business itself.’

Too many associations?

The scarcity of resources raises a particular question in respect of the US, where there are 75 staffed grantmaker associations as well as many more without staff. For Jacob Harold and Kelly Born, ‘there’s simply not enough money to support all the networks that are out there … We’d get more impact if we could have fewer, stronger funders’ groups.’ ‘On the cost side, it inhibits economies of scale. Benefits are also limited. It’s harder for healthy networks to form, members are fragmented and pulled in multiple directions, and people have a harder time knowing what others are doing.’

Nick Deychakiwsky tends to agree, but feels ‘it’s not a simple question’. On the one hand, he sees the possibility of dissipating the sector’s effective voice if it is filtered through too many small groups. On the other, he sees it as ‘unrealistic to try to centralize everything under one roof, especially in today’s decentralized world’. Ultimately, he feels, it should depend on what network participants ‘want and need and what they’re willing to contribute’.

By contrast, prior to the founding of the Arab Foundations Forum, ‘the Arab region was the only region without a network’, say Luma Hamdan and Atallah Kuttab. ‘While this has been a hindrance to the development of philanthropy in the region, its late entry into the field has enabled AFF to learn lessons from other networks.’ In particular, he says, ‘the most daring lessons were derived from the experience (failures and successes) of the South African Grantmakers’ Association (SAGA).’

Guarding against cliques
There is also the problem of ‘unevenness’, with some members less interested or engaged than others. This will be familiar to anyone involved in membership associations. Almost all of our respondents highlight this risk. ‘The time given by members to a network is usually marginal,’ says Carolina Langan, which poses the risk that the network might become ‘a board/staff-driven organization rather than a space constructed and enriched by members’.

This unevenness is sometimes caused by, sometimes leads to, networks ‘becoming beholden to their primary funders too much’, giving their voice undue weight. ‘Having more than a few contributing – not just money but effort, interest, engagement, knowledge, time,’ is a key to the success of the network, believes Deychakiwsky. Nicky McIntyre, too, notes that ‘to be successful, the activities of the network need to be carried by more than a small group of highly motivated people’. If it is not to resemble a small club, you need to ‘make sure that all voices have a place in the network’.

Being inclusive poses its own problems. Some members are at what Jacob Harold and Kelly Born term ‘earlier stages in their evolution and development’, while others are more sophisticated. ‘It can prove challenging to balance these demands when providing common content and services.’ Atallah Kuttab and Luma Hamdan stress the need to avoid ‘lowest common denominator decisions, stifling creativity and effectiveness’.

Jon Cracknell touches on the same issue when he talks of the tension between ‘going broad’ and ‘going deep’, a tension which is often illustrated in a conflict between attempting to widen the funding base and attempting to increase effectiveness. ‘To bring in new funders often means pitching programming at an entry level. But deeper strategic collaboration requires space where all funders understand the issues in question.’

In short, associations always involve a kind of balancing act. A question all of them have to answer if they are to prosper is, as Akwasi Aidoo puts it, how to ‘“uncongeal” the heavy-set interests and agendas of its diverse members into a coherent set of services’.

Ingredients for success
There was a striking level of agreement among respondents about what makes for the success of a network. Involvement, not just notional participation, as we’ve already seen, is necessary if networks are to thrive. ‘For the Environmental Grantmakers Association, success relies on active engagement,’ confirms Rachel Leon, adding that this means board (or steering group) as well as members.

‘Strong and effective leadership is probably the most important ingredient,’ say Jacob Harold and Kelly Born. ‘Tact, charisma and enthusiasm are vital for both coordinators and steering group/board members,’ says Jon Cracknell. ‘In a nutshell,’ says Nick Deychakiwsky, ‘leadership and member service. Infusing an ethic, followed by practice, of shared interest, of mutual support, of “being in this together”.’

Both Cracknell and Nicky McIntyre mention clarity of purpose as an ingredient for success. ‘Effective networks know what they are trying to achieve,’ Cracknell argues, ‘and when to resist the temptation to be drawn into non-core activities.’ He also notes a risk which networks need to be aware of. If funders get together and decide one approach is the answer, it can mean that ‘all available resources are tied up in one approach’. He goes on: ‘it’s important for networks and their coordinators to retain a sense of perspective’ in order to avoid this.

Nick Deychakiwsky highlights good communication. The secretariat or centre needs to communicate ‘constantly with participants, and that communication must be two-way (ie it listens as well as speaks)’. He also makes a point that resonates with some of the articles in this issue by network theorists from other fields. The network centre, he says, should ‘not try to channel everything through it, but facilitate horizontal connections that may bypass it. This is both an efficiency question and something that makes participants more confident in the network.’ Finally, he believes successful networks are those that are ‘open to entities outside the network and …willing to collaborate with other networks’. ‘We actively seek out and work with other networks and organizations within this arena,’ says Sue Daniels, ‘respecting their expertise and reducing duplication.’

For Helena Monteiro, the power of a network to influence events is about developing a critical mass: ‘Success does not necessarily require engaging every stakeholder as a network member; success can be measured by the capacity to engage enough stakeholders to influence change.’

Striking the right balance

In addition, the network must strike the right balance between leading with new ideas and new approaches and not getting too far ahead of its members. Nicky McIntyre and Rachel Leon both mention a willingness to ‘push the envelope’ as factors in network success. It’s important, says McIntyre, that networks ‘bring forward issues that are relevant, even if they seem tangential to some at first. It’s important to move discussions forward and not just talk about the status quo.’ Leon points to EGA’s Tracking the Field interactive database which ‘is breaking new ground as a resource for our members … and our interactive website, which helps them connect when they are not there in person’. Kurt Peleman speaks of the need for ‘networks to be dynamic – so that they evolve and adapt to the current times, and even anticipate trends to come’.

But Atallah Kuttab and Luma Hamdan sound a note of caution, seeing it as crucial not to ‘move faster than the majority of the membership’ so as to avoid losing ‘commitment, engagement and, most important of all, trust (as the saying goes “more hurry, less speed”)’.

In the last resort, thinks Sue Daniels, ‘networks fail only if they are no longer relevant or have failed to keep up with and/or address any changes in the external environment which affect the network’. So ‘everything you do must be relevant to those involved in the network – which means developing programming strands for particular topics and working with other organizations to ensure the offer is topical. Networks also need to be challenged by the programme: there is a need to consider wide perspectives.’

A permanent tug-of-war?

It may be that networks that work need to be in a constant state of tension. They need to ensure a sort of permanent tug-of-war between different elements – between the interests of individual members and the collective interests of the group, between the priorities of the more sophisticated members and those of the less experienced. If one side or the other wins the tug-of-war, the network’s useful days may be numbered.

As with all forms of cooperation, it must be clear that the resources spent on the network are worthwhile. For Carolina Langan, the first requirement of a successful network is that it works ‘on those kind of things that members cannot achieve by themselves working isolated’.  ‘The most important ingredient,’ believes Krasimira Velichkova, ‘is the consciousness that the things we do have a meaning and power to change the world only if we are together as a community.’

Alliance would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article:
Akwasi Aidoo Chief executive, TrustAfrica
Kelly Born Fellow for philanthropy and the president’s office, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation
Jon Cracknell Director, Goldsmith Family Philanthropy, UK
Sue Daniels Executive director, European Association for Philanthropy and Giving
Nick Deychakiwsky  Program officer, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, USA
Luma Hamdan Executive director, Arab Foundations Forum
Jacob Harold Former program officer, philanthropy, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation (now CEO of GuideStar)
Atallah Kuttab Founder, Arab Foundations Forum
Carolina Langan Executive director, GDFE, Argentina
Rachel Leon Executive director, Environmental Grantmakers Association, USA
Nicky McIntyre Executive director, Mama Cash, Netherlands
Helena Monteiro Executive director, WINGS
Helen Orande Executive director, League of Corporate Foundations, Philippines
Kurt Peleman Executive director, European Venture Philanthropy Association
Krasimira Velichkova Executive director, Bulgarian Donors’ Forum

Andrew Milner
is associate editor of Alliance. Email am@andrewmilner.free-online.co.uk

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