The Potential of Funder Collaboratives

Collaborative grant making is an idea more than a century old. Pioneers in this space include United Way Worldwide, which began aggregating funding for community problem-solving in the late 1800s. But recently, collaboration is having a new moment. Over 70% of the aggregated philanthropic giving collaborations active today are less than twenty years old. What is drawing so many grant-makers to forge new alliances?

Forces contributing to this new wave of collaborative philanthropy include a widening of the grant-making community and broader social dynamics separating the giving norms of the 20th century from today’s giving styles.

The first part of this shift is demographic. Collaboration is particularly popular with younger investors, including GenX and Millennials, who held seven out of ten jobs in US philanthropy as of 2018. These younger change makers bring with them norms of broader connection borne of long familiarity with digital tools, prefer consensus-driven approaches, and may feel disillusioned with top-down leadership models[1].

The second part of the shift is technological. In decades past, philanthropic giving was feasible only for a handful of well-recognized foundations, very wealthy families, and high net worth individuals. Now, the same collaboration and information-sharing tools driving broader economic growth and social change in high-income nations have also made their mark on the giving space. Giving at scale can now be done not just by large foundations but also by networks of smaller investors[2] and through crowd-sourcing.

The character of business innovation has also changed, taking on an awareness of social and environmental sustainability. In the private sector, the mid-1990s saw the rise of triple-bottom-line business approaches, which evaluated a firm’s success based on social and environmental benefits in addition to profits. The approach taken by many funder organizations and high net worth individuals has become equivalently wide-angle.

Another factor influencing the growth of collaboration is a change in the kinds of problems funders seek to solve. Over the past few decades, the issue areas and problems attracting philanthropic energy have grown in scope.[3] Philanthropists of many stripes are setting their sights on tackling complex, intersectional issues like climate change and hunger that span disciplinary boundaries and have impacts on national and global scale. There is growing recognition within fields of philanthropic grant-making that effectively confronting problems of this scale and degree of intersectionality requires collaboration[4].

This growing focus on wider challenges goes hand in hand with a growing focus on systemic change. Building intersectional understanding of societal and environmental problems highlights the role of systems in creating today’s most pressing social and environmental problems. These are problems in the face of which small solutions and piecemeal action seem inadequate. In response, philanthropy is increasingly prioritizing systemic transformation over incremental wins.

In the field of food systems, grant makers are targeting problems like system-wide transformation of farming, food, and dietary choice. Specific collaborative goals include ending industrial animal farming, and transforming unsustainable agriculture. Food system philanthropy today can also provide critical support for critical points of intervention in systems, and for proof of concept efforts that show the potential of innovative solutions that could change the field if scaled up to match large systemic problems, but currently lack strong public backing or wide support from the NGO community.

Types of Collaboration

Collaboratives in grant making are as varied as their members. Networks come in several different forms based on structure, how funding decisions are made, and the specific goals of each group. In some cases, philanthropic money is pooled, and funding decisions are made democratically through a central financial vehicle. In other cases, knowledge and strategy may be pooled while vetting and grant making remain under the control of individual funders. Each of these variable formats has its own benefits and challenges, appropriate for distinct contexts.

Learning Networks[5] are collaboratives that gather with the goal of sharing knowledge and perspectives while remaining independent. Participants benefit by having a deeper understanding of what is happening in a focus area and the chance to discuss the merits of different strategies.

Strategic Alignment Networks[6] are groups that come together with a shared mission and the goal of finding strategic alignment to help a movement be more effective. These networks agree on a single, unifying group strategy for the sake of impact but may undertake grant making individually.

Pooled Funds, sometimes called “giving circles,” [7] are collaboratives that center around a common pool of philanthropic funds. Grants given by these networks are collective rather than individual. Grant-making decisions are made democratically, sometimes with voting weight proportional to the financial contribution made by each individual funder.

Across these types of collaboratives, networks also differ based on their strategic focus. Research by the Bridgespan group categorized collaborative networks by their investment thesis or theory of change[8]. Organization Funders target their financial support toward specific highly visible change makers, either individuals or leading organizations that have the potential to make a significant impact on the focus issue. Participants in this type of network may advocate to the collective on behalf of prospective grantees. Field Builders, on the other hand, seek to improve the overall fitness of their field in order to advance its goals. This approach focuses on elevating certain practices and general capacity within the target field. A third group, Goal Aligners, target specific outcomes through the power of strategic alignment among change makers. These groups gather organizations with diverse approaches and catalyze strategic action among them toward shared, winnable goals.

Why Funders Collaborate

What specific benefits does collaboration offer for funders, and how can collaborative energy be translated into the biggest impact?

Simply put, collaboration allows for larger and more sustained financial contributions to the issues that motivate individual grant makers. Especially for smaller funders who would otherwise face constraints on the size or duration of grants they could give, becoming part of a collective can allow funding dollars to carry more impact.  In this way, collaborative funding can lead to more effective work by enabling larger, more stable grants that can support long-term interventions.  

Research among highly effective funder collaboratives suggests that working together can also pay off in the form of closer connections with peers in the funding landscape, access to shared knowledge, and a more cohesive movement.

Depending on the structure and membership of a given group, collaboration can also allow funders to extend their reach to new areas of influence. Sharing knowledge and building trust with peers focused on different aspects of a system or problem can reduce the due diligence barriers that keep funders from being able to offer resources to recipients other than prior well-known grantees, by connecting them with grant makers who have relevant relationships and experience. This can facilitate novel approaches to grant making that meld resources across disciplinary divides, extending funders’ reach to issue areas they know less well or communities they would otherwise have been unable to benefit.

Building bridges through collaboration can be a game changer for those seeking to create systemic change. The additional relationships and learning available in a funder collaborative strengthen the potential of giving. Solving large intersectional problems through systemic solutions is also more feasible with a team of funders that reflects the complexity of the system at hand and facilitates communication between participants.

In collaboratives such as strategic alignment networks, aligning with fellow funders on strategy and goals can amplify the potential systemic impact of individual interventions. For funders who seek systemic transformation directly, collaboration with peers can improve the effectiveness of interventions by providing a network including multiple levels of work from national policy to community organizing—arenas where some grant-makers can struggle to engage meaningfully on their own[9].

Collaborative funder networks can…

  • Facilitate knowledge-sharing between groups with differing levels of experience and issue awareness
  • Provide opportunities to collectively share, discuss, and refine theories of change
  • Catalyze intersectional energy on broad-based food system solutions, removing sources of opposition
  • Allow for more ambitious and larger-scale projects, longer time commitments, and more security of funding for recipient groups
  • Allow for more efficiency in targeting funding resources, improving coverage of gaps, and reducing duplicative efforts
  • Enlarge the impact of funding, beyond the sum of its parts

Existing Collaboratives in Food SYstems and Environment

Animal Grantmakers is a network of funders that aims to increase the effectiveness of grant making on behalf of all animals. Member benefits include facilitated communication with other funders, research studies analyzing the landscape of animal grant making, and organizational assistance to new foundations.

Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) is a collaborative built around strategic research and knowledge exchange, targeting the need for more sustainable ways of producing the food and fibers that form the basis of our daily lives. Members have access to market insights, industry transformation roadmaps, events, webinars, and a peer community.

Environmental Grantmakers Association facilitates connection among more than 200 foundations supporting environmental causes. Members receive access to research publications, lectures, trainings, events, and a community of grant makers with similar priorities.

Farmed Animal Funders (FAF) is a learning network dedicated to ending industrialized animal agriculture through philanthropy. With 35 members in North America and Europe, FAF provides community events, collaborative giving opportunities, and customized research to help its members advance their philanthropic goals to expedite the end of factory farming.

Funders for Regenerative Agriculture (FORA) is a strategic alignment network bringing together funders motivated by the goal of increasing the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices in North America. The group offers member-led strategic initiatives, learning opportunities, and connections to practitioners.

Challenges in building effective Networks

While there are clear potential benefits to funder collaboration in the form of enhanced impact on target issues, there are also challenges to forming a successful collaborative.

Analysts of philanthropic networks agree that effective cooperation does not simply happen. Creating the right collaborative is, in some ways, an art: It takes identifying the right topic, convening a group at the right time, and bringing together the right individuals and organizations to create effective synergy with genuine potential for impact.[10] It also takes hard work.

For some, collaborating may not come naturally. No external forces or overarching governance structures necessarily exist to encourage grant-makers to work together. Many grant-makers and private philanthropists may start from a position of wanting to go it alone, deciding for themselves what issues matter to them, rather than take on the many challenges inherent in a group setting.

Such challenges can be significant. To agree on group purpose, funders in collaboratives face the need to share or even relinquish control of setting funding priorities, relying instead on group processes. Power differentials and differences between communication styles between participants during this process may also complicate learning and strategic alignment if not adequately addressed by the collaborative.

Joining any group of grant makers involves a willingness on the part of each member to align on key aspects of mission and strategy while setting aside their individual organizational perspective and priorities. Funder groups thus face the challenge of finding common ground among differing core values and partially overlapping theories of change.[11] For this effort to be worthwhile, the collaborative must be able to yield clear benefits; amplified impact, fruitful alliances, beneficial information-sharing, and reduced due-diligence burdens must be worth the investment of time in aligning theories of change.

Addressing and overcoming the challenges of convening a network, when it succeeds, often relies on robust structure and process. At a minimum, effective collaboration requires solid and responsive leadership, a clear shared vision, and a strong strategy that pays attention to the value of including specific contributors. Effective funder collaboratives have clear values and strong leaders who embody humility and resourcefulness.[12] However they are structured, collaboratives must also contend with issues of equity and access to be sure that the right participants are brought together, and community values upheld.

For many collaboratives, the first step of forming a network is the most important: What does the group exist to do, and why is a collaborative the right tool for the job?[13] What does a collaborative make possible that individual grant-makers could not achieve—or not as effectively—on their own?

Making the Most of this moment

The potential for cooperation and exchange among funders of food systems, animal welfare, and environmental causes is immense, especially in this critical post-pandemic moment of social change. Never before have so many interconnected problems been so visible to so many. And never before has the need for equitable and inclusive solutions to systemic problems—even within our movements themselves—been more widely recognized.

Now is the time for funders in food and agriculture to prioritize collaboration to take our efforts to the next level, through the “multiplier effect” of relationships.[14] Confronting the many intersectional problems of our current food system will require finding ways to work across our differences, aligning based on critical strategic priorities, and committing to a collaborative strategic agenda. Only together can we achieve rapid system-wide change for animals, people, and the environment.  


[1] Cynthia Gibson and Anne MacKinnon, “Funder Collaboratives: Why and How Funders Work Together” (New York, N.Y.: GrantCraft, 2009), https://grantcraft.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/12/funder_collaboratives_secure.pdf.

[2] Katrina Miller-Stevens and Jennifer A. Taylor, “Philanthropic Collaboration: A Conceptual Framework for Giving Circles,” Public Integrity 22, no. 6 (November 1, 2020): 575–89, https://doi.org/10.1080/10999922.2020.1719808.

[3] Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Abe Grindle, “Audacious Philanthropy,” Harvard Business Review, no. September-October (2017): 110–18, https://hbr.org/2017/09/audacious-philanthropy.

[4] Fulton, Katherine, Gabriel Kasper, and Barbara Kibbe. “What’s next for philanthropy: Acting bigger and adapting better in a networked world.” San Francisco: Monitor Institute (2010), https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/monitor-institute/us-monitor-institute-whats-next-for-community-philanthropy-report.pdf.

[5] See endnote 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alison Powell et al., “Are Funder Collaboratives Valuable? A Research Study” (The Bridgespan Group, July 2019), https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/philanthropy/how-philanthropic-collaborations-succeed-and-fail.

[9] Gwen Walden, Lauren Marra, and Katrina Briddell, “Going Beyond Grantmaking: Using External Help to Extend a Foundation’s Core Competencies and Increase Its Impact,” The Foundation Review 7, no. 1 (March 31, 2015), https://doi.org/10.9707/1944-5660.1239.

[10] See endnote 1.

[11] See endnote 9.

[12] Ellie Buteau, Charis Loh, and Hannah Martin, “Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations” (The Center for Effective Philanthropy, 2019), http://cep.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/CEP_Greater-Good_2019.pdf.

[13] William Porter et al., “Funder Collaborations — Flourish or Flounder?,” The Foundation Review 9, no. 4 (December 1, 2017), https://doi.org/10.9707/1944-5660.1389.

[14] William Foster and Susan Wolf Ditkoff, “When You’ve Made Enough to Make a Difference: A Strategy for Becoming an Effective Philanthropist,” Harvard Business Review, no. January-February (2011), https://hbr.org/2011/01/when-youve-made-enough-to-make-a-difference.

About the author

Lauren Kohler

As Food Systems Program Manager, Lauren writes about the approach that Stray Dog Institute takes to food systems programming and philanthropy and shares lessons from her facilitation of Stray Dog Institute's collaborative working groups. Lauren is motivated by the vision of a food system that is just and sustainable for people, animals, and the environment.

By Lauren Kohler

About the Author

As Food Systems Program Manager, Lauren writes about the approach that Stray Dog Institute takes to food systems programming and philanthropy and shares lessons from her facilitation of Stray Dog Institute's collaborative working groups. Lauren is motivated by the vision of a food system that is just and sustainable for people, animals, and the environment.

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