Collaborative giving

We round up the benefits - and pitfalls - associated with collaborative giving to help you form and steward your own philanthropic collaborations.

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This curated page explains the benefits - and pitfalls - associated with collaborative giving. It aims to provide a comprehensive overview of this increasingly popular practice and it includes links to downloadable checklists to help you form and steward your own philanthropic collaborations.

Although the concept of group giving is not new, so-called philanthropic collaboratives have grown in number in recent years as donors increasingly seek to pool resources to scale their impact. 

These vehicles range in size, from informal giving circles among family, friends, and peers to support local initiatives, to more ambitious moonshot-style funds targeting global challenges like climate and gender equality. 

Done well, collaborative philanthropy allows funders to leverage diverse skills and experiences and expand their circles of influence and impact. Similarly, pooling resources can reduce overheads and cut-back on duplicated efforts. But pooled giving is not straightforward; poorly-planned collaboratives without clear, time-bound objectives, robust management systems, and fixed exit strategies are likely to fail.

Giving as a group requires consensus and the legal structures behind collaborative philanthropies can be complicated - and costly - to set up due to the number of different stakeholders involved. An alternative to forming or joining a giving circle is merely to donate to one. Some funds will accept small donations, others will have higher entry points and membership criteria will differ for each collaboration.

Philanthropic collaborations in action

Philanthropic collaboratives take many forms. They can be jointly funded single entities, such as The End Fund, set up by the Legatum Foundation to pool resources in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Or, they can be capital aggregators, such as the Audacious Project from TED, which provides funding for promising social innovators, or Lever for Change from the MacArthur Foundation, which helps catalyse match funding for different organisations.

Another example is Co-Impact, which pools funds to target education, health, and economic projects in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Core partners, such as philanthropists, foundations, bilaterals, or multilaterals, typically put in $50m over a 10-year period, and this is topped up by broader funders who typically commit $500,000 over a three-year term. These resources are then pooled to fund grants of various sizes, some up to $25m, to support system changing initiatives.

Earlier this year, Co-Impact launched a $1bn Gender Fund, to provide money for women-focussed NGOs in the Global South, with the aim of advancing gender equality and female leadership and correcting harmful cultural norms. Melinda French Gates, Mackenzie Scott, Roshni Nadar Malhotra and the Shiv Nadar Foundation, and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Zimbabwean philanthropist and social entrepreneur, are among its starting donors.

In India, The GROW Fund launched in late-2021 in response to the impact of Covid-19. Anchored by the EdelGive Foundation, it aims to strengthen more than 100 grassroots organisations over a two-year period by providing funding for capacity building and key organisational functions. A number of leading philanthropies have already pledged their support to the initiative, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Manan Trust, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, A.T.E Chandra Foundation, and Ashish Kacholia.

Closer to home, The Reaching the Last Mile (RLMF) was launched in 2017 by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and The ELMA Philanthropies. RLMF’s mission is to raise $100m over 10 years to support the elimination of two neglected tropical diseases, river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. In addition to the founding gifts donations, RLMF also raises money from the general public through consumer campaigns and UAE-based corporate donors. See below for more examples of collaborative giving.

Two other regional examples of collaborative giving are The Shefa Fund and Alfanar. The former was launched in 2013 by a group of Saudi-based donors with support from the BMGF focusing on polio eradication, maternal health, emergency relief, and malaria control. 

Alfanar, meanwhile, is the Middle East's first venture philanthropy fund. It was started in 2004 by the late Tarek Ben Halim, a London-based investment banker of Palestinian and Libyan descent, and pools funds for promising growth-stage social enterprises. Today, Alfanar and supports social businesses in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine working in a range of areas, primarily education, youth employment, and women's economic empowerment.

Collaborate to accumulate

“As the landscape of philanthropy continues to expand and evolve, it’s become more and more clear that the future of systemic change … requires not only larger pools of funding, but more combined willpower and expertise," notes this Collaborative Giving roadmap by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA). "If your philanthropic vision involves truly moving the needle on a big issue, it’s worth exploring the possibility of bringing others along with you on the journey.” 

The RPA roadmap is a good jumping off point to understanding the potential (and potential pitfalls) of group giving. In addition to making the case for collaboratives, it outlines different models, from pooled funds to capital aggregators, and lays out key questions for group members to ask themselves before entering into a collaborative.

These include:

  • Why are we giving? What impact do we want to create?
  • How will we achieve the impact we’ve identified?
  • What is each partner willing (and expected) to invest – not just in funds but in time and effort?
  • How soon do we need to see our desired results?
  • Why are we the right team for our shared area of focus?
  • Do we need to collaborate in order to reach our goals?

Four reasons why funders may wish to pool some of their philanthropic capital to collaboration giving efforts:

  1. Learning opportunities for donors. If you’re a newer player in philanthropy, becoming part of a collaborative can provide access to wisdom and experience that will help inform your future giving strategies and practices. And even experienced donors can tap into the skillsets and expertise of their peers.
  2. Better management of risk. With access to the wisdom of other donors, a wider network of advisors and other shared resources, collaboration can mitigate the risks of striking out on your own or duplicating efforts while you may still be learning about a specific sector or cause.
  3. Increased impact. When you can pool funds for longer-term or larger gifts, you free your grantees from excessive reporting duties; you also give them the security of knowing that their big visions are supported by a more substantial flow of capital, helping them grow their initiatives without the uncertainty of consistently applying for smaller, shorter- term funding.
  4. A focus on decision-making processes. When you collaborate, the interaction with others is a catalyst for thoughtful decision-making (and without it, you’re in trouble). When you’re acting alone, you may be more likely to give without an overall strategy or rubric for decision-making. Working with others to define a process can help avoid this while creating the satisfaction of an integrated giving strategy that aligns with your personal values, as well as those of the group.

The RPA guide is candid about the potential difficulties involved with collaborative philanthropy and outlines ways to structure group giving vehicles to avoid longer-term issues arising. “If solving problems together were easy, everyone with a big vision would be doing it,” it says. “It’s important to understand the challenges of working with others toward a big philanthropic endgame; failing to prepare for these challenges has sunk many a promising collaboration.”

It also profiles several leading global collaboratives. These include: The End Fund, a pooled fund targeting neglected tropical diseases in seven countries across Africa and the Middle East;, a crowdfunded capital aggregator providing credit to SMEs in developing economies; and Big Bang Philanthropy, a group of private and corporate donors funding high-impact, scalable poverty solutions across Africa and Asia. 

Download the full roadmap here.

How to avoid pitfalls in philanthropic collaborations

Establish governance procedures early on. Collaboration requires compromise. This can stop it from happening before it begins, especially for donors who are used to fully dictating how every dollar is spent. You can work together to structure decision making processes and governance, but each person in the group is going to have to cede control at some point — either to the collective as a whole, or to another person within it.

Define and agree on shared values. As you explore funding possibilities together, what’s your North Star? What are your non-negotiables? What will help guide you when decisions are difficult, or opportunities seem unclear. Making the time to talk through these questions — and codify them —will make your partnership much easier when the way forward isn’t clear.

Find alignment on impact measurements. Once you know the impact you’re seeking to create, define the tangible milestones that will define success for you. What targets will you set along the way? When do you intend to reach them?

Decide how you’ll bring on new partners, and when. As you plan the structure and operation of your collaboration, how will you bring in new players? Finding other funders with similar goals may be easier than finding those who are also good fit for the governance and impact measurements you’ve agreed to.

Agree on a time horizon that makes sense for your members, in light of your goals. In addition to talking through expected timeframes for each partner’s participation, it’s also important to decide how long your collaboration will last. Is your goal to provide measurable improvements in a specific impact area over the next five years, for example? Do you want to spend three years on a particular proof of concept for a new approach to grantmaking? Do you have a plan for 20 years of funding? Considering your goals alongside the capacity of the partners involved, you can identify the right timeline for your efforts.

Decide who gets credit, and how. Is it important that each member gets an agreed-upon level or type of credit for the success of the group, even though members may provide various resources at different levels? Does anyone want or need to remain anonymous? Is there a natural spokesperson among the collaborators? Deciding how you’ll speak for yourselves, and how you’ll gracefully accept whatever success you might achieve, is important.

Source: Collaborative Giving roadmap by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA).

Fulfilling potential: making collaborations work 

Bridgespan, a nonprofit consultancy, has published a collection of helpful research papers on collaborative philanthropy. Their 2021 report, Releasing the Potential of Philanthropic Collaborations, for example, examines the growing popularity of collaboratives, highlights some of the challenges associated with group giving, and talks about mindsets adaptions to help collaborative approaches succeed. It encourages donors considering a collaborative route to ask these three questions:

  1. What does the collaborative aim to accomplish? Identify the social impact the fund seeks to have, the rationale and strategy it is employing to attain this impact, and how it is measuring its progress (and adapting work as necessary).
  2. How does the collaborative work with donors? What decision rights do funders have in terms of strategy and grantmaking? How much are funders expected to contribute? And what types of donor networking, education, and engagement does the collaborative offer?
  3. How does the collaborative operate? Who is the leadership and staff? How do they source and support grantees? Are the leaders expert in the issues at hand, and, ideally, do they have personal experience with these issues? Also consider whether the fund solicits input and perspectives from those it seeks to support.

A 2019 Bridgespan report, The value of philanthropic collaborations, based a survey of funders and grantees involved in collaboratives, found that donors reported “deepened field expertise that led to more strategic, informed, and effective investments”. Grantees that Bridgespan interviewed said the benefits of participating in a collaborative outweighed the costs but called for funders to streamline reporting, promote grantees more actively, and facilitate more grantee input into strategy setting and execution.

Benefits of group giving

Philanthropic collaboratives can help leverage the diverse skills and experiences of different partners and make stakeholders more effective. A philanthropic collaborative taps into different but complementary skills and funding streams from a diverse array of actors. There is a two-sided payoff from activating the core partners’ skills and experiences: collaboration helps make individual stakeholders more effective and it can significantly reduce operating costs. Addressing complexity often requires stakeholders to think and act holistically. Consider, for example, the challenge of transforming 1,000 villages in Maharashtra by enhancing access to drinking water, improving education outcomes, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and increasing agricultural income. Rising to that challenge requires multi-sectoral, integrated approaches and an advanced understanding of the local contexts that shape these problems. Typically, such a bold goal exceeds the capacity, resources, and influence of any single actor.

Philanthropic collaboratives can expand the actors’ circle of influence and impact. It is a safe bet that the majority of funders and NGOs that are endeavouring to improve and in many cases save lives aspire to be resource magnets. That is, they want to attract more resources, and more attention, to the social issues they aspire to affect. Their logic: they amplify their impact if they expand their circle of influence, by enlisting funders, NGOs, the government, and other actors in their cause.

Philanthropic collaboratives can help mitigate risk. For many donors, investing in a truly novel idea seems inherently risky, since it is almost impossible to predict the initiative’s timeline and potential impact. It is far safer to fund ideas that simply build on a grantee’s current programs.  And yet, to make real progress against such ambitious goals as ending poverty in India, improving nutrition, and empowering women and girls, it behoves funders to also invest in a compelling array of new strategic options—high-potential alternatives to the status quo—in hopes that one or two might yield a solution that enhances millions of lives.

Source: Bridgespan Philanthropic Collaboratives in India: The Power of Many (2019) 

Bridgespan's 2019 guide also looks at why collaboratives fail. Based on a study of unsuccessful initiatives, it identified five characteristics most frequently associated with unsuccessful ventures. These were:

  1. Misaligned goals among funders
  2. Failure to translate overall goals into time-bound, winnable milestones
  3. Failure to right-size the collaborative’s administrative and operational structures to optimise effective pursuit of its goals
  4. Inability to adapt strategy in the face of external or internal challenges or opportunities
  5. Limited or ineffective stakeholder engagement in shaping the collaborative’s goals and facilitating implementation

For a deep dive examination of giving collaboratives in India, it is worth reading Bridgespan’s Philanthropic Collaboratives in India: The Power of Many (2019). The authors interviewed more than 50 people —core and operating partners, as well as leaders involved in philanthropic collaboratives—to help develop and validate a definition of philanthropic collaboratives in the Indian context, as well as identify their typical goals and roles.

Organisations surveyed and profiled in the guide include: Transform Rural India Foundation (TRIF); India Climate Collaborative (ICC); India Sanitation Coalition (ISC); Alliance for Saving Mothers and Newborns (ASMAN); and the Village Social Transformation Foundation (VSTF). Some of the key challenges around collaborative giving identified by interviewees included: a lack of trust, leading to excessive control from core partners; siloed approaches by partners, and a difficulty in balancing partners organisational priorities with the collaborative’s agenda; and a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities of partners.

The 3Cs of philanthropic collaboration

“There is no blueprint for philanthropic collaboratives to overcome these challenges,” the report notes, but it outlines “3Cs” for current and aspiring collaborators to keep in mind.

It takes commitment to collaborate. Working through the complexity of collaborating and making progress towards outsized goals requires a non-trivial investment of time, imagination, and persistence. It also behoves philanthropic collaboratives to secure anchor funders who are willing to provide long-term (at least three years) unrestricted funding.

Clarity (and communication) can streamline collective action. Clarity emerges when there are regular, consistent conversations around who does what, as well as on how core and implementing partners are faring against the commitments they have taken on. Such transparency minimises the potential for surprising setbacks and counteracts people’s tendencies to push their own agendas or retreat to silos.

Be prepared to course correct. It is almost inevitable that as a philanthropic collaborative moves from strategising to executing, some assumptions will not prove out. By continuously tracking progress and results, collaboratives can get an early signal on what needs to change, as well as reap the opportunity to learn and improve. Should the partners decide to shift from the collaborative model to working independently, anticipating and managing change becomes even more paramount.

SOURCE: Bridgespan - Philanthropic Collaboratives in India: The Power of Many (2019) 

How and why funders work together

Another useful resource about collaborative giving comes from the US-based entity formerly known as Grantcraft and now called Candid Learning for Funders. Funder collaboratives: why and how funders work together sets out common anchor points that bring funders together, considers the pros and cons of group giving, and considers how organisations and individuals can organise for good relationships and outcomes.

Grantcraft is upfront about the complexities and challenges involved in philanthropic collaborations. “A collaborative effort may run up against organisational cultures that place a high value on institutional independence, recognition, and leadership,” it notes. “Diverse interests and personalities can make for challenging waters to navigate, and the commitment, time, and resources required to be part of a collaborative can be daunting. The incentive to collaborate may also seem elusive, given a dearth of hard evidence about the benefits, cost-effectiveness, and strategic advantages of collaborative grantmaking.”

It also discusses how the “messiness” of collaboratives is part of their value. “The process itself is what catalyses the critical shift from believing that the right answers and expertise are held by a few to an understanding that it is the collective wisdom of the group that determines right action and greater impact,” says Marianne Hughes, the founding executive director of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, a US-based advisory firm focussed on social collaboratives.

Within the guide is a set of nuts-and-bolts questions aimed at people coming together to form a collaboration. You can download a printable (and editable Word Document) version of this here. Points covered include: purpose; membership; operations; governance; grants and resources; and evaluation.

There is also a second checklist to help establishing and established collaboratives assess how they are doing. Do they have clarity about end goals, outcomes, and strategy? Is there enough money in the pot to get the job done? Is there evidence of ongoing learning among members? Is there an exit plan? You can download this checklist here

What brings funders together?

Field. Some collaboratives seek to develop or advance a particular field, often one that’s new or growing, such as reproductive justice or disability rights.

Solutions. Some collaboratives form to address a specific issue or solution, such as federal immigration reform, especially when funders see a moment of policy opportunity.

Strategy. Some collaboratives support a particular strategy or approach, such as community organising.

Identity. Some collaboratives work together to improve the circumstances of people of a particular race, ethnicity, ideological persuasion, religion, gender, sexual orientation, educational or economic status, or other group.

Geography. Some collaboratives support organisations, issues, solutions, or strategies in a particular geographic area.

Source: Grantcraft, Funder collaboratives: why and how funders work together (2009)

Templates and toolkits

You will find a step-by-step guide to forming and managing a funding collaborative on the Funders Collaborative Hub, hosted by the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations. The Funder Collaboration Toolkit covers the strategic and practical steps recommended for effective collaborations. It outlines 12 steps grouped into three stages (foundation, building, and stewarding).

  • The Pathfinder
  • The Navigator
  • The Articulator
  • The Landscape Mapper
  • The Engagement Pack
  • The Meeting Planner
  • The Purpose Crafter
  • The Role Definer
  • The Collaboration Charter
  • The Top Tips 
  • The Health Check
  • The Library

Further reading

Funders need to push past politeness and hammer out expectations for how their collective action will create value—for beneficiaries, grantees, and themselves—beyond what they could do alone, argue Alison Powell, Susan Wolf Ditkoff & Fay Twersky in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Read more

A white paper from the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, this aims to serve as a resource for philanthropists and philanthropic organisations by exploring the development of collaborative philanthropy across the continent. It looks at enabling environments, describes different frameworks for collaboratives, and presents the opportunities and challenges faced by philanthropists and philanthropic organisations looking to partake in formalised collaborative efforts. It also features case studies of philanthropic collaboratives both in the region and around the world. Read more

A 2015 article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review is a few years old, but it offers a good summary of lessons from a Bridgespan report on the US-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation's experience with collaboration. Read more

Further reading

Funders need to push past politeness and hammer out expectations for how their collective action will create value—for beneficiaries, grantees, and themselves—beyond what they could do alone, argue Alison Powell, Susan Wolf Ditkoff & Fay Twersky in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Read more

A white paper from the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, this aims to serve as a resource for philanthropists and philanthropic organisations by exploring the development of collaborative philanthropy across the continent. It looks at enabling environments, describes different frameworks for collaboratives, and presents the opportunities and challenges faced by philanthropists and philanthropic organisations looking to partake in formalised collaborative efforts. It also features case studies of philanthropic collaboratives both in the region and around the world. Read more

A 2015 article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review is a few years old, but it offers a good summary of lessons from a Bridgespan report on the US-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation's experience with collaboration. Read more