If you run a simple search for “nonprofit collaboration” on the Internet, you will easily find over 24,000 resources: blogs, reports, and other guides offering advice on how to collaborate. GMNsight even focused its May 2015 online journal for grants managers on the topic.
For decades, small NGOs and community groups have partnered with international agencies like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders to provide rural communities around the world with health resources, food, water, and shelter in the wake of famine, war, natural disasters, and political unrest. NGO collaborations like these have been an example to the nonprofit ecosystem, showing how small groups can have big impacts, if they work together. In a world where government and international donors far “outfund” philanthropy institutions—even those as large as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—collaboration is one of the major ways that foundations of all sizes can increase their impact on a global scale.
The Hewlett Foundation values collaboration amongst foundation partners, despite its inherent challenges. While still new in his position, the Foundation’s president Larry Kramer talked openly about his misconception that collaboration would be a natural step forward, and his surprise at encountering so many difficulties (see Hewlett Foundation’s video blog here). He cited the agency costs associated with collaboration, and the reluctance to change processes and programmatic strategies that may have taken years to implement. Kramer learned that unless you’re starting something new—and can avoid conflicting timelines and differences in grant processes—it’s much more difficult than he’d imagined. Still, Kramer urges program officers to look for more opportunities to participate in multi-stakeholder collaborations. He sees these activities as part and parcel to the rest of the grantmaking and relationship-building work they must do. This is especially true where the foundation supports large-scale projects, more vast than its means, for research and advocacy with a goal of systemic policy change. And so Hewlett Foundation program staff look at big, sticky problems in collaborative partnerships, with aid agencies like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, with other foundations like the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, and in concert with many of our grantee organizations.
The Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development & Population program, which my position supports, starts with the big ideas and narrows them down into bite-size pieces or grants. Like other strategic foundations, using a “theory of change” approach helps us be selective about which collaborations can help us meet our goals and those of our partners. Program officers go on site visits and meet with our partners to learn, and to help determine how and if the Hewlett Foundation should collaborate. Across languages and time zones and amidst differing views of the same problem, Hewlett staff work to maximize the foundation’s support with limited financial resources—by making connections between grantees and with other funders. Here’s where the practical challenges that Larry mentioned come into play: there are differing process timelines as well as varied due diligence strategies and requirements. Take these same operational matters and add governmental contract requirements, time differences, and language barriers and it only amplifies the level of complexity of some collaborations. To further complicate things, our international partners operate under different legal, civil society, and political landscapes. The program officers at the Hewlett Foundation work to balance all of this without much ado. And, the program associates and grants management team manage the operational details that allow the officers to participate fully in collaborations. How do we set the groundwork to do that?
International collaboration requires that we learn as much as we can about the countries and contexts in which we work, as well as learn about our partner organizations.
The staff at the Hewlett Foundation are proud of the organization’s culture of humility. This characteristic describes staff and our approach to grantmaking and has been part of our history since the foundation made its first grant almost 50 years ago. We can’t know everything, and we are aware of our limitations. But, we can always learn from our partners and grantees. When it comes to international collaboration, Ruth Levine, the Hewlett Foundation’s program director for the Global Development & Population program, values experiential learning . She encourages program staff to keep up on pertinent subject matter. She and other staff frequently bring experts to our offices in Menlo Park to support our learning. Earlier this year two nonprofits presented how they included women and teenage girls in Zambia and Niger to develop family planning programs, followed shortly by a former Kenyan journalist who spoke about the landscape of corruption and security in East Africa. Levine also supports site visits by program associates and officers, especially when a visit provides opportunities for two-way learning and a deeper understanding of our funding priorities.
The Global Development & Population program makes grants supporting collaborative programs and projects on an international scale, but also has a specific interest in East and West Africa and Mexico. Therefore, program officers have expertise as well as work experience in the regions we focus on—their resumes show time spent as Peace Corps volunteers, on the ground work with international NGOs, and years of experience honing their subject matter expertise. Program staff have a solid understanding of the landscape of the countries in which they work and likely have worked with collaborative partners in some capacity during their careers. Because we don’t have offices outside of the Bay Area, Hewlett Foundation staff try to get as much information as they can during their time in the field. They rely heavily on grantee expertise to guide collaborative functions and help us define where our support is needed most. Often, staff engaged in collaborative efforts convene meetings at key intervals to ensure continued progress with our partners. Keeping up-to-date helps our expert staff share insights and ideas from the field during their collaborative interactions.
Sara Davis, the Foundation’s director of grants management, also wants our team of grants officers to have grants management expertise specific to the needs of the foundation’s program staff. One way we achieve this is by embedding grants officers in one or more programs. Thus, as the grants officer for the Global Development & Population program, I am actively involved in program team meetings and retreats. I have accompanied program officers on site visits in Senegal, and have attended collaborative partner meetings in Washington, D.C. and Menlo Park. The understanding and knowledge I have gained about our grantees through these meetings help me effectively serve the Global Development & Population team. In addition, our grants officers attend the Grants Manager’s Network conference and other philanthropy and grants management convenings to continuously hone our knowledge and skills in best practices and grantmaking trends. We bring this knowledge and our expanded professional connections back to the work of making smart collaborative grants even better. With this base of understanding, what comes next?
We practice working collaboratively ourselves through leveraging our colleagues’ expertise.
Collaborations are much larger than the sum of their parts. We know this because of our practice of capitalizing on all of our human resources and working collaboratively in teams. In fact, the work of creating effective partnerships with program staff and other departments sometimes feels like a dance. To dance together gracefully takes trust which is often built through time spent together learning. Trust is also achieved when we work together to solve some of the complex issues of grantmaking in the international context. We must trust that each of us will do our part and support the goal of helping our grantees and partners do the critical work they do.
The program associates and officers are actively involved with grantees and partners in collaborations. The program associates are the “first responders” and work with program officers to fully understand the goal of a particular grant or collaboration, to identify needs, and to flag those things that may require support from their grants officer. Grants officers, while an integral part of the program teams, often act as consultants to program staff on grant practice and operations. Of course, collaborations are inherently complex so, this dance doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s less like a waltz and more like swing dancing, with rapid movements where partners must be in sync. It is important that we communicate regularly, define roles, and have multiple people keeping track of next steps (without stepping on each other’s toes). The connections and trust between grants officers and program staff are critical.
When the dance is smooth, it’s because program staff and grants officers are in step. Being in tune allows us to zoom in on the finer details of grantmaking in support of the collaboration, and just as importantly zoom out in order to understand the bigger picture. We might ask questions like: How is the collaboration hosted? Who are our funding partners? What do the grantees need to be able to do to collaborate successfully? What are the other funders supporting and asking for? To figure out the answers to these questions, program associates often join calls with program officers and collaborative partners, and communicate regularly with grants officers.
Sometimes collaborations require a line dance, with multiple partners stepping in as needed. When the collaboration has aspects that go beyond making a straightforward grant, the program staff and grants officer may need to pull in colleagues from our effective philanthropy group, or call on legal or finance for further guidance. For example, if we decide to incorporate an evaluation of the collaborative at its formation, we might ask our evaluation officer for help. If an ongoing collaboration is struggling, we may want the Hewlett Foundation’s organizational effectiveness and strategy officer to talk us through how to best support strategic planning or other capacity-building efforts. If we want to fund a secretariat that moves from year to year among collaborative partners, we may need legal expertise to decide how best to support the secretariat and its work. The program officer, associate, and I are often working together to decide whose expertise we need to tap. So, while some collaborations only need two partners to work, others require a line dance. Our ultimate goal, and the goal of our partners, is to co-create a grant that allows organizations to collaborate effectively and implement plans and activities that work. So, how do we do that?
We ensure staff are well-trained and are able to use a variety of tools to make it as easy as possible for international partner organizations to balance meeting our legal and strategic needs.
With a clear, shared understanding of the goal of the collaboration, we can translate it to the grantmaking context and identify a specific grant or set of grants to make. Using this knowledge, program staff also have to interpret our needs so our grantee(s) can give us the information we require for due diligence and compliance. Because a collaboration’s theory of change rarely translates into clear cut action, the Hewlett Foundation uses a variety of tools to get as close to the theory as possible.
The Hewlett Foundation’s commitment to on-going staff training ensures staff have the tools they need. Last year, the legal team trained staff on the legal and structural considerations of donor collaboratives so that they could guide grantees through the proposal and reporting processes for collaborative projects. Hewlett grants officers have even more knowledge to guide the foundation’s program staff in the early stages of proposal development for collaborations. Working out the details can get complicated, but our staff consistently try to make our processes as easy as possible for grantees.
Training and knowledge-building are essential to helping our organizational partners form successful collaborations—and the right tools can facilitate effective collaboration. This is where the rubber hits the road in managing the complexities of collaboration that Kramer discussed in his video blog. Because of process and language differences, the funder agreement has been a useful tool to clarify all the moving parts of a collaborative partnership. While a funder agreement is often required—for example, by government aid partners such as the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the United States Agency for International Development—the fact is funder agreements are useful when forming any complex grantmaking collaboration. The funder agreement outlines the aim of the project, the roles and responsibilities of each collaborative member, and specifies the operational and financial aspects of the union. It can require that at least one staff person from each funder serves on an advisory panel. A funder agreement can also establish in advance how problems or conflicts will be resolved, or what will happen if the collaboration ends. In most cases, the funder agreement should be in place prior to making any grants, thus ensuring the collaborative project begins with a solid foundation.
We often strive to know how our grants will fit within the funding scheme of the collaborative partnership. Thus, another tool is assessing the role of each of the funders. In one example at the Hewlett Foundation, we were the first foundation to partner with a Canadian agency that would administer a $100mil initiative to build the capacity and advocacy acumen of think tanks, primarily in low and low-middle income countries. Other funders joined this effort that would eventually lead to more locally derived evidence to inform policymaking in the developing world. We wanted and were able to provide more flexible funding, but some of our donor partners wanted to focus their funding on specific geography or solely on specific issue areas (e.g., health, food security). In order to best support this large initiative, the program officer assessed what other funders were interested in through a series of meetings and conference calls with the funders and the implementing organization. In support of those efforts, the program associate and me as the grants officer talked at length with the program officer and joined phone calls with our grantee in order to understand our role in the collaboration.
Because collaborations do get complicated, for both funders and grantees, our goal is to make grantees’ lives easier when we can. We can be flexible with how we collect information about grantee collaborations and simplify what documents we ask for by using common funding applications and reporting. In some cases, program staff work with other funders to outline application requirements and even shared sets of questions for grantees to respond to. In the think tanks initiative already described, as well as in an international collaborative focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, we agreed to accept a standard annual report for all governmental and foundation donors. This allows our grantees to spend more time developing civil society organization partnerships or creating strong evidence to inform policymaking. Because we partner with large governmental aid organizations, which have stricter requirements for contractors and organizational implementers, we try to decrease the burden of our own requirements as much as we can.
However, when making grants to international NGOs, U.S. tax laws don’t always allow us to be as flexible as we’d like. When this is the case, we use a final set of tools that make grantees’ lives easier. We align our report due dates with those of the other funders, or send one payment up front for a multi-year grant. We work collaboratively to come up with solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
I have mentioned trust on more than one occasion. In his publication Real Collaboration: A Guide for Grantmakers, David La Piana stresses the importance of trust, and of building trusting relationships, for a successful collaboration. I would posit that trust is not only important for grantees, funders, and other partners involved in the collaboration, it is also critical to establish trust in-house, amongst the foundation staff working with the collaborative partners. So, too, the funders working together to support the collaboration should believe in each other. While program officers are navigating the globe to meet with the varied partners they collaborate with, they can trust that the program associates and grants officers are back home dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s that will allow the grant to easily move through the foundation’s processes and can support grantees to do what they need to do to be successful. While we continue to strive towards increased trust and better collaboration inside the walls of the foundation, we are also learning how that trust and practice of in-house collaboration can give us an edge when collaborating outside of these walls.
Guides from the field.
- Lessons in Funder Collaboration: What the Packard Foundation has Learned about Working with Other Funders.
- Real Collaboration: A Guide for Grantmakers, by David La Piana.