Donors and foundation leaders often expect nonprofits to collaborate, but they less frequently turn that expectation on themselves. Yet there is tremendous opportunity to exponentially expand impact through funder collaboration. In fact, it is rare for an individual or a funder to produce meaningful research or develop an idea all alone. Collaboration allows for greater leverage of ideas, investments, and reach to better ensure that research is thorough and conclusive, and that new products or approaches work and are relevant to those they're intended to serve.
What does it mean to collaborate? Funder collaborations happen in many different ways, all of which leverage the strengths of each collaborative partner to achieve a common goal. Collaborations can be formal and complex, with written agreements and well-defined roles and structures, or they can be a series of ongoing conversations or even simple handshake agreements. They can be long-term efforts that require a significant commitment of time and funds, or short-term tactical approaches to addressing a common need. They can require a pooling of funds for investment, or simply aligning investments toward a common goal at the discretion of each collaborator.
But in seeking new ideas and approaches, in being innovative, funders need to look beyond their own peers. For example, when working with domestic violence shelters, the Blue Shield of California Foundation learned that the shelters were challenged by the task of paying for hotel room beds for victims of violence when their shelters were full. The foundation connected a group of shelters with an app development company, and the result of that collaboration was a new SafeNight app that allows shelters to crowdsource funding for hotel beds in real time, as needed. Blue Shield of California Foundation itself could never have provided the technical know-how or the connections to make that approach work. Neither could other foundations. Instead, BSCF collaborated with a for-profit software developer, nonprofit domestic violence service providers, and private hotels to make the idea a success.
Collaborations can be messy, and they can take unanticipated twists and turns. But so can innovation. In fact, we typically expect that new ideas or products require some disruption - so it stands to reason that the processes by which those new ideas or products emerge (in this case, collaboration) should be somewhat disruptive as well.