Funders: Considering Collaboration? Start With a Light Touch and See Where It Leads

When smaller, place-based foundations collaborate and align their work, they provide unique value to local communities and nonprofits. Still, many foundations shy away from working together, assuming it will require considerable time and a loss of independence.  

Funder collaboration need not be burdensome, nor does it require perfect alignment. You can start by sharing information and agreeing to work on something for a few short weeks or months. Exponent Philanthropy members are demonstrating ways to partner light to amplify their impact.   

Smaller, place-based foundations are managed by individuals with deep ties to the community. Their donors, staff, and board members have extensive knowledge of local needs and organizations, and they also have relationships with local leaders in business, government, and education. When these foundations work together, even briefly, they can leverage these assets to amplify each other’s efforts and meet priority needs that fit their community’s particular culture and environment 

Coalitions of place-based funders offer opportunities for partnership to larger foundations, who may not have extensive knowledge about local needs and cultures, nor have local relationships.   

According to Exponent Philanthropy’s 2022 Foundation Operations and Management Report, sixty percent of our members collaborate with other funders. While some work in formal partnerships, many more engage in informal ones where they align funding or work on a project together for a limited time. These informal collaborations usually consist of two to six foundations but can encompass a dozen or more. Oftentimes, local government agencies and other funding organizations like United Way participate.  

Benefits of Funder Collaboration 

Why do lean funders participate in collaborations? Among Exponent members, six common purposes have emerged: 


1) Meeting Urgent Needs in the Community 

Lean funders join with each other, community foundations, United Way, and others to meet a specific need for a few months, such as providing relief during Covid-19 or in the aftermath of a natural disaster. By working together, funders can discover gaps and unmet needs, coordinate grants and other support, and maximize the unique resources and relationships that each brings to the table.  


2) Offering Networking and Education 

It’s common for lean funders to exchange information about community needs, nonprofits, and grantees. Similarly, many collaborate to engage experts to provide education and training for foundation board and staff. Common subjects include strategic planning, communications, advocacy, and community needs assessments.  

Some foundation executive directors form peer coaching circles with other Eds to help each other meet specific challenges or embrace new opportunities. These bi-weekly or monthly sessions can lead to collaborations.  

One way these leaders meet each other is through Exponent Philanthropy’s conferences and education programs, member discussion forums, or staff introductions. 


3) Providing Mutual Support 

By definition, leanly staffed funders are staffed by just one person or a few people. Thirty percent have no paid staff and are operated by donors or trustees. Some look to peers in their community for technical support on topics like bookkeeping and accounting, human resources management, working with investment advisors, using grants management software, and finding local consultants.  


4) Comparing Current Funding to Community Needs to Identify Gaps 

In some place-based funder collaborations, members combine grantmaking information to create a collective picture of private funding in the community and compare it to a community needs assessment conducted by the local government, a nonprofit, or community foundation. Sometimes foundations that are not collaboration members provide their grant information to paint a more complete picture of private giving. This mapping exercise helps funders meet unmet or underfunded needs and populations.  

For example, one collaboration’s gap analysis revealed that a city’s private funders offered minimal support in the areas of health and drug addiction prevention. A number of foundations are now exploring ways to support evidence-based prevention strategies.   


5) Addressing a Particular Need or Gap 

Exponent members take part in collaborations that support training and capacity building for nonprofits in their cities and towns. When funders come together and share insights from reading grant applications and from conversations with local nonprofits, they see patterns and trends emerge. To meet needs, they co-fund professional development in areas like fundraising, strategic planning, facilitation, evaluation, racial equity work, marketing and communications, storytelling, and more.   

In one community in Indiana, three foundations teamed up to design a training program for local nonprofit leaders and staff. The Ball Brothers Foundation (an Exponent Philanthropy member), Community Foundation of Muncie and Delaware County, and local United Way collaborated to build fundraising capacity, especially around individual donor solicitation. The three funders were talking regularly and realized each of their nonprofit partners struggled in this area. They decided to pilot an intensive, six-month program hosted by the community foundation to help local nonprofit staff learn best practices and immediately apply them. 

Many nonprofits that provide critical services in our community manage with only a small number of staff. Their overworked executive director will juggle everything from shuttling after-school program kids to mopping the hallway to writing grants. But we also know that individual donor dollars are critical and that well-stewarded donors can be a lifeblood to organizations,” says Jenna Wachtmann, Vice President of the Ball Brothers Foundation. 


6) Funding or Engaging in Advocacy 

Funder coalitions working at the city or state level can pool their resources to support data and research that backs policy change. They can also combine and coordinate efforts to engage nonprofit partners in advocacy, develop unified messaging, and invite city council members or state legislators to attend their meetings to learn and engage. Lean funders have found that elected officials welcome the opportunity to attend these meetings.  

“Foundations are unusual in that they don’t come knocking at legislators’ door asking for money; instead, they bring resources, relationships, and knowledge about community needs, and a desire to partner,” says advocacy consultant Jason Sabo of Frontera Strategy. 

In New Mexico, the Thornburg Foundation convened a group of funders working in early childhood education and maternal health to advocate for more state support for effective, evidence-based programs. Over time, the funder coalition partnered with the state to better coordinate government programs serving young children and families.  

Advantages of Informal Collaborations 

Meeting and working together less formally, or for a short time, offers several benefits to place-based funders operating with few or no staff.  

Lowering the stakes: Short-term collaborations may make other funders feel more comfortable bringing their unique resources and relationships to the table. Potential partners could include foundations, donors, and other community organizations like government agencies, the United Way, and local businesses. Furthermore, they may be more open to the collaboration given that it’s short term and won’t require a great deal of staff time.  

Collaborating while maintaining independence: Foundations can find a common project or goal, while maintaining their individual missions, grant preferences, and application and reporting requirements. For example, a temporary, informal collaboration may make it easier for a foundation that only gives project grants to work with a foundation that offers general operating support. In the same manner, a foundation that’s more private could work with one that leverages its public reputation.  

Loose, short-term affiliations also can be valuable for advocacy work. Funders with differing political perspectives can still work together, with some members quietly funding research while others write op-eds and meet with legislators. Pursuit of a specific goal cuts across their differences.  

Promoting learning and education: While working together, even temporarily, newcomers to philanthropy can learn from more experienced funders. Likewise, funders who are curious about specific practices can observe their peers and develop greater familiarity. These may include streamlining applications, providing general operating support, convening, and meeting with legislators to educate them on issues.  

Encouraging broad participation: Collaborating informally can ease the way for a wider array of funders to work together on specific projects or community priorities. Funders who don’t want to become full partners can still lend other resources—technical expertise, data, space, or their name and reputation—to collective efforts.  

Through deft facilitation, a funder coalition can achieve powerful unity without requiring perfect agreement.   

First Steps to Learning and Working Together 

  • Start with one conversation. Exponent Philanthropy members recommend reaching out to two or three other foundations in your town or city to have a conversation. You can choose other lean funders or funders who work in fields like housing, food insecurity, or capacity building. Start with one conversation and see if there’s interest in continuing.  
  • Ask people what they want to talk about. If there is interest in meeting again, ask your peers about their grantee partners’ priority needs. Doing this will help the group think in terms of patterns and trends. Ask about fields or skills they want to learn. You might explore interest in doing an educational program or training together or inviting someone to do a presentation.  
  • Consider inviting more funders. Depending on interests and goals, your group might reach out to other lean funders, larger foundations, collective giving groups, etc. On the other hand, you might want to keep the group small for a while to build and strengthen your relationships with each other.  
  • Rotate hosting and facilitation. One person should volunteer to schedule the meetings, ask for topics, create agendas, and facilitate to keep conversations focused. Rotate this role, so it does not become burdensome.  
  • Consider flexible ways to participate. Some funders may not be willing or able to participate in all conversations and meetings or collaborate on funding. Nevertheless, they may still want to offer other resources like meeting space, grantmaking data, or lending their name and reputation to the coalition’s projects.   
  • Be open to new opportunities. Exponent Philanthropy members have seen short- and long-term projects emerge from informal conversations, which can spark and incubate new projects, new partnerships, and new ways of working together. The potential for creativity and impact is unlimited. 

For several years, two of our members—Kerry McHugh of the Helen J. Serini Foundation and Leigh Adams of the Ausherman Family Foundation—have been catalyzing and leading a funders’ group in Frederick, Maryland. The group coalesced around a specific project and then kept going. It has coordinated Covid-related emergency responses, supported training for the community’s nonprofit and foundation leaders, including a series of programs on racial equity, and identified underserved needs and populations.  

The funders group also has spawned two other groups— a group of non-ED foundation staff and a group of foundation benefactors—that meet regularly and the executive directors.  

McHugh and Adams had few expectations when they began, creating space for relationships and trust to develop. The collaboration continues to have a ripple effect, sparking ideas, engaging new partners, and amplifying impact in their community.