How Grantmakers Can Improve Collaboration Through Empathy and Experimentation

Years ago, I worked on a project where I was hired to interview about 75 different foundations in one state. These included all types of foundations, large to small, family-run, disease-related, corporate-operated. Do you know the one thing that nearly every foundation representative shared?

Somewhere in the interview, they said, “We are unique.”

Some would say these words as they introduced their foundation: “Here at foundation X, our approach to giving is unique.” Or maybe they would use a slight spin, such as, “our grantmaking strategies are unique”, or “we do things differently here. For example…” What was interesting is that after they made these types of statements, what they all went on to share about how they granted funds, vetted applications, organized their boards, and the process by which they evaluated their grantee partners was very, very similar.

Also, most of the foundations I talked to found it difficult to collaborate with other foundations. From this learning, I was left with the question, “How can collaborations thrive when everyone feels that they are “unique”?

The key, I’ve found, is approaching collaboration with empathy and testing your assumptions. By infusing our social impact work with empathy and experimentation, grantmakers can create a stronger shared value in our collaborative work.

Collaboration in a Crisis

When COVID emerged, the uniqueness didn’t seem to matter as much. We saw many barriers to collaboration dissolve and more streamlined grantmaking emerge. We saw foundations maximize their giving together and explore how to collectively simplify access to funds by communicating, strategizing with, and treating nonprofit leaders and staff like the experts on community needs that they are. While it was a scary time in early 2020, it was also an exciting time to be in social impact because we saw the change that was possible.

Now that we are–unbelievably–at the two-and-a-half-year mark of the global pandemic, there has been some regression to our pre-COVID practices, and some foundations have settled back into status quo practices.

Our work in social impact and philanthropy is full of potential to create a more meaningful impact, and social change is interconnected and interdependent at the local, national, and global levels. We need to resist the urge to sit comfortably in the status quo and work to build more collaboration among grantmakers.

Two essential keys to a successful collaboration— and overcoming the distance of our “uniqueness”—are empathy and experimentation. Empathy provides the foundation of deep and authentic understanding between collaborative partners and experimentation tests the behaviors you need to see in order to achieve success.

Creating a Connection Through Empathy

We have an empathy deficit as a nation. That includes us, “the good ones”, those who are intent on making the world a better place. As a social impact sector and in philanthropy, we exist to do good, but at times we can unintentionally create policies, practices, and even projects that impede progress and can create harm. We would never set out to waste resources or damage our relationships, but this can occur if we skip the essential first step of creating a connection.

When we don’t understand or ask about the perspectives, needs, and goals of others, we usually insert our own, which are often infused with our own biases, experiences, and assumptions. This is where collaboration can break down because people and organizations do not feel seen, heard, or empowered to fully contribute. By making small shifts in how we communicate and how we understand our uniqueness and similarities, we can unlock powerful opportunities beyond what we initially imagined. When we acknowledge gaps in our knowledge, ask great questions and listen to the answers, we form strong foundations and shared value in our collaborative work.

Testing Your Assumptions

Every collaboration includes embedded assumptions that we often ignore and lack the skills to test. We might believe that if someone agrees to work together, signs an MOU, and jointly applies for a grant, in the case of nonprofit partners, they are “all in” and the intended “stronger together” outcomes will be satisfied.

Unfortunately, untested assumptions can be lethal to collaboration. I have seen entire partnerships crumble—the reasons why uncovered years later after much wasted time, effort, and resources—because no one tested the initial assumptions of the collaborative work itself. Everyone agreed on the vision, goals, structure, and activities, but the assumptions that lay beneath those initially shared agreements became loose and fractured as the execution of those agreements emerged.

Assumptions are all the things that must be true for the collaboration to be successful, and they are often things we assume are true without any evidence. For foundations and nonprofit partners, they might include assumptions that partners will attend a majority of meetings, unlock funds and share their networks, contribute to projects and applications, share data, refer clients to the program, provide staff or volunteers to support a program, advertise services, provide space for programming, and share other resources. These assumptions and uncertainties are significant and can derail impact if left untested.

By using a few simple new skills—like better understanding your challenge and stakeholders and identifying your greatest areas of uncertainty—you can expose and address these assumptions early, get more aligned on your shared mission, and begin to test pathways to results within hours and weeks, rather than waiting months and years for outcomes. You can know very early if an organization is the right fit, has the capacity to engage, and recognize the potential pivots that could make all the difference.

Co-Designing Solutions Using Empathy and Experimentation

As we re-evaluate our processes after more than two years of upheaval, look at how you incorporated collaboration with other grantmakers and your community. Resist the urge to go back to your silos and find ways to bring more collaboration into your organization.

For more than a decade I have taught people, teams, and organizations how to codesign solutions to problems using new skills. If you want to drive a greater impact, join us for our webinar on collaborative grantmaking, “The Role of Empathy and Experimentation.” I go deeper into the role of empathy and experimentation, share the key questions you should ask your collaborative partners, and highlight examples of how you can test drive your collaborative partnerships before you invest