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Eight Heads Are Better Than One

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

By Diana Loukedis Doherty

As a general rule, I think most funders are the type of people who “played nicely in the sandbox” with other kids.  We tend to be bridge-builders, reaching out to create connections, bringing others into the tent, all that good stuff. Despite it all, many of us struggle when it comes to true collaboration with other funders.  We know it’s the right thing to do, and we want (desperately) to reduce duplication of effort, share resources, and maximize impact by partnering with each other.  More often than not, however, our individual giving guidelines and/or operational structures impose restrictions on our flexibility, sometimes to the point that we just throw up our well-intentioned hands and resort to our tried-and-true methods, our self-imposed deadlines, our comfortable ways of making grants and doing business.  We retreat to our own familiar systems because collaboration is, quite frankly, a lot of work, and most of us have more than enough work to do already.

But once in a while, we actually pull it off.

This is not a story of game-changing innovation.  It’s not the tale of a funder-led revolution.  This is, however, an illustration of a practical, worthwhile collaborative initiative that eight foundations worked on together in 2018 for the benefit of our grantees. 

The Premise:

To have more than one foundation work together to deliver a professional development workshop for our grantees around the topic of “Grassroots Fundraising.”  Why this topic?  Many of us had surveyed our grantees and/or simply talked with them about their learning needs, and we learned that they wanted more education around how to raise individual donations from the community.  Seeing as our foundation funding can be fickle and inflexible, we thought that a workshop featuring ways to raise operating support from a variety of highly-engaged and dedicated donors who have no deadlines (and no pesky guidelines for giving) would be a popular half-day workshop for our nonprofit partners.

The Collaborators:

  • Mindy Aldridge, Nelson Foundation
  • Beth Feldman Brandt, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation
  • Andrea Bretting, Claneil Foundation
  • Diana Doherty, Seybert Foundation
  • Eddie Irizarry, Philadelphia Foundation
  • Jennifer Leith, Douty Foundation
  • Carey Morgan, New Century Trust
  • Kristi Poling, Barra Foundation

The Timeframe:

In March, 2018, Beth Feldman Brandt and I got to talking about professional development for grantees, and we kicked around the idea of pooling our resources to produce a workshop for both foundations’ grantees, rather than holding separate sessions.  We chatted with other funder-buddies from Philanthropy Network about the idea and several of them expressed interest in getting involved, too. We held an initial conference call to gauge interest in working together in early-April, 2018.  The final workshop, the culmination of our collaborative efforts, took place in December, 2018.  That’s about nine months of work, to put together one half-day event.  (Q: What else takes nine months to develop?  A: A human being.)  Lesson learned: The true currency of funder collaboration is not our money, it’s our time.

The Cost:

Speaking of currency, early on we needed to identify an approximate budget for this workshop, and most of us needed to get the green-light from our Boards to expend some foundation funds on such an event.  This demanded a clear-headed outlining of the structure of the event (e.g., how many people would we invite? How many speakers would we involve, and what fees would they charge?  How many meals, if any, would we provide? What kind of venue would we need to rent? etc.), which, in turn, required a series of conference calls, follow-up emails, off-line one-on-one conversations, delegation of research duties, and frank discussions around what resources we would each bring to the table.  Some of us ponied up money.  Some of us had connections to speakers.  Some of us could score a free venue.  We all had to have skin in the game—in one way or the other, we all had to be contributing in a meaningful way. Lesson learned: Unlike in regular life, where talking frankly about what things cost is considered gauche, in funder-collaborative settings it’s actually completely necessary. Partners need to know, and literally buy-in to, the true costs of what is being proposed, and they need to formally commit to covering a portion of those true costs.  These conversations can be a little awkward, but they are essential.

The Process:

Someone had to keep our group of eight on-task.  That is to say, someone had to be the nudge.  Someone had to be responsible for sending out doodle-polls to gauge availability for the next conference call, sending out summaries of meeting notes and soliciting comments/edits to ensure that we were all on the same page in terms of what decisions were made and what next steps were required, etc.   I stepped into that role, and we all agreed that each of us would have to step into various roles in order for this collaboration to work.  Thus a couple of people stepped up to take the lead on identifying speakers; a couple of people stepped up to lead the venue-search; a couple of people indicated that, when the time came, they would assist with marketing the event and managing registrations, etc.  Everyone had a role to play, with real responsibility attached.  Lesson learned: Delegate specific duties to each member of the group, so nothing falls through the cracks and people are held accountable for discreet tasks.

The Event:

Eighty grantees attended a free, half-day workshop on “Grassroots Fundraising for Dollars and Engagement” in December, 2018, presented by Barra, Bartol, Claneil, Douty, Nelson, New Century Trust, Philadelphia Foundation and Seybert.  Reviews were strong, and bills were divided up and paid according to our budget-plan. Beth Feldman Brandt captured the details about the event itself, and some pictures, in the Bartol blog, Grassroots Fundraising for Dollars and EngagementLesson learned: Nonprofits feel obligated to go to funders’ events, so rather than tie-up their time with multiple events for each of our foundations all year-round, work together to offer one event that many of our grantees can all attend.

Photo courtesy Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation

The Pitfalls:

The biggest issue we encountered was around selecting speakers for the event.  Tastes and interests vary in a group of eight funders in terms of who should be featured as speakers and why.  Major discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) arose as a result, and some of those conversations led to the occasional awkward phone call or defensive remark.  Sometimes one of our group would deliberately comment on the importance of having these difficult and uncomfortable conversations around DEI, and that served to remind us all that this territory isn’t easily navigated.  Lesson learned: Be prepared to make compromises both large and small, because no one funder is going to get everything he/she wants out of the collaborative effort, but don’t be afraid to voice your core issues and “dealbreakers,” so the final product will align with your priorities on the major points, at least. 

Some Final Thoughts:

I learned a lot about my colleagues during this process, and I think they learned a lot about me.  It’s hard to get eight strong personalities on the same page, and I’m proud of us for the maturity and the mutual respect we all demonstrated throughout the many months of this collaboration.  I think that we also demonstrated to our nonprofit partners that we value their time, and we recognize that foundation funding cannot be the only answer to their fundraising needs, and that we funders are trying to find ways to go “beyond the grant” to put not only dollars, but more importantly our sweat-equity into an effort that benefits our grantees’ professional development.  It would have been easier, simpler, to run my own professional development workshop for my own grantees, selecting speakers myself and tailoring the entire venture to my sole specifications.  But the following week, many of those grantees would get an invitation to another workshop, from another foundation, asking them to spend yet another half-day learning whatever that foundation wanted them to learn, and another and another, at least eight times throughout the year.  So we worked together, and we delivered an educational workshop while reducing redundancy. It wasn’t the easiest process, but I think it was worth every dime, and every minute, the eight of us put into it.

Diana Loukedis Doherty was Manager of Seybert Foundation from 2011-2019, during which time the event described above occurred. Today, Diana manages BLBB Charitable and is Executive Director of the VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn. She is an active member of Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, currently serving on the Board of Directors and co-chairing the Member Engagement Committee.