Collaboration and philanthropy

July 18, 2016 at 9:52 am 1 comment

2016-lisa-courtice-blog-photoThis week Philanthropy Ohio welcomes guest blogger Lisa S. Courtice, Ph.D., Executive Vice President for The Columbus Foundation, sharing her expertise on collaborations. 

Why is collaboration, or working with others to achieve something, important to Philanthropy?

Collaboration is important to philanthropy because the issues we help address are too big to tackle alone and because the risk factors of collaboration help keep us (professionals in philanthropy) real.

I believe that it is a privilege to work in philanthropy and to be charged with helping to tackle some of our community’s most pressing problems and to be effective, collaboration is essential. Even the largest philanthropists today are too small in relationship to the really serious problems that we have in central Ohio, let alone our country or world.

IMG_1518I will never forget hearing Melinda Gates speak at a conference in California.  She talked about people thinking that the wealth of the Gates Foundation could solve big problems.  She reminded us that the assets of the Gates Foundation, $40 billion…indeed, an enormous about of wealth, could not fund one year of operations for the California Public Schools.

For most of us, our ambitions and those of our respective organizations, outstrip our resources.

Collaboration has many benefits, one of the greatest being it helps to keep us real.  I believe that those of us who work in philanthropy are at great risk of contracting the professional disease known as insularism. While we would like to say that we are truly effective in the pursuit of our work, there are increasing numbers of individuals questioning the role philanthropy plays and whether it is achieving its true potential.  In the words of one grantee, “Foundations are like the building ledge on which nonprofit pigeons sit—not the wind under their wings that make them fly, but a helpful something, nevertheless.”

And yet, we are needed aren’t we?  What would nonprofits do in our absence?

We sometimes fail to remember the most significant contributor to the sustainability of the nonprofit sector is indeed public funding, not philanthropy.

A number of foundations in northern California commissioned a market survey (involving interviews with grantees, government officials, and other stakeholders) to assess how foundations are viewed and what beneficial roles they are thought to play. Interestingly, the response to the survey was a complete absence of any positive assessment of the work of foundations.

Think about this statement. There are over 56,000 foundations in our country and the majority operate without staff and simply direct financial support to nonprofits. Yet the feedback from this survey was that the contributed values of these philanthropy players is at best NEUTRAL. This should give each of us reason to step back to think about the real value of our work.

For me, the most interesting findings from this study were the phrases most often used to describe foundation staff and board members. We might hope these words were efficient, helpful, supportive, or high value-added. But those foundations that underwrote the survey were surprised to find the terms to describe both them and their colleagues were:  arrogant, heuristic, full of hubris, self-confident to the point of overpowering, and having a complete inability to listen.

People in philanthropy are used to being flattered and told just how critical their support is to the work of nonprofits. Despite this sense of valuable self-worth, there is the very real possibility that many of those we actually seek to support view us through a much different lens and experience our efforts at contributing to their work as little more than a necessary force to be tolerated.

We may be tempted to say this could possibly be true of other grantmakers, but certainly our own grantees would respond differently.  And while we would all like to believe our work is of the highest value, in fact that actual perceptions of those who should know, our customers, could well be completely opposite from our own.

If we are to move towards greater effectiveness within philanthropy, we must first acknowledge that there is both the need and opportunity for improvement. One way to make a meaningful commitment to the pursuit of philanthropic effectiveness is to begin to re-vision the role of “grantmaker…….. to investment collaborator in community well-being.”

I suggest collaboration — collaborating with a variety of stakeholders in the development of our long-term investment strategies — helps to mitigate insularism.

When we seek to become consumer of ideas and experience from other players and other sectors.  When we engage in dialogue with these stakeholders, our own strategies will be more realistically grounded in what is happening in the market as opposed to what we perceived to happening in the market.  This will then give us a greater likelihood of being more effective in our work.

Our connecting with the field in a more direct manner facilitates a flattening of the hierarchies in knowledge sharing and in that way promises to enhance not only our own understanding of the challenges at hand, but also to participate in building this shared knowledge base.

cols_fdn_media_rgbDo we run the risk of projecting the image that we actually know what we are doing when, in point of fact, we may know less than we care to admit?   The insular nature of the philanthropic community combined with the power dynamics, may lead us to overstate our knowledge regarding the right thing as well as our capacity to do it.  Collaborating helps bring us back to reality.

Collaborations and collaborating is important for philanthropy because the help keep us real.  They keep us real because they are risky.

Inherently, collaboration says something is happening outside of one’s immediate control.   The various dynamics that make it risky include:

1.    Not knowing the answer. The fundamental premise of collaboration is that you can use it to solve complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise.  That means each participant needs to be comfortable with a certain amount of     ambiguity. Most people have built their careers — perhaps even their identity — on being the expert.  Feeling ignorant is not a comfortable feeling.

2.    Unclear or uncomfortable roles. Role and responsibilities in the collaboration space tend not to be hierarchical; they are often fluid, changing from phase to phase of the work. This can be especially hard for senior leaders, because it means being a team member, not the team leader.

3.  Too much talking, not enough doing. Collaboration means a shift from thinking big ideas alone, and more into the real-time mess of problem solving with others. Shifting work from “I tell, they do” to a “We think together” approach will appear at first to be all about talking. But thinking together closes a gap.

4.  Fear of fighting. Collaborating means dealing with conflicting priorities. “Turf” isn’t always clear. If you avoid conflict, or don’t know how to fight effectively, nothing will happen. Knowing how to debate the tradeoffs between many viable options means knowing how to argue with each other about the business in more open and visible ways. Not doing it well, or doing it wrong — or simply losing?  Very risky.

5.    More work. Collaboration happens on top of other work. Participants are already plenty busy with their “day job” and the new project may be especially stressful because of this. Until the problems that any collaboration project is aimed to fix gets solved, a collaboration project can often be overwhelming. Most people describe collaboration with rose colored glasses: If they would just collaborate, then they would do better! But collaboration is about the friction of ideas and the forging of new ways of working. That is not easy. And it makes new demands on all of us.

IMG_0834And finally,
6.  It’s hard to know who to praise and who to blame. Collaborative projects are judged on the outcome, more than the individual efforts than went into them. Leaders have less visibility into who did what. If things go right, they worry about rewarding the wrong people. If things go wrong, they complain about no longer having a single point of accountability.

Collaborating…working with others to develop strategies, to align resources…is essential to be the most effective grantmaker possible.  Navigating these risk factors makes us vulnerable and helps to keep us real.  And collaboration increases the likelihood that we develop greater effectiveness not at doing what think is right from an insulated perch, but doing what we have experienced and learned together is right.

Lisa S. Courtice

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Finding Summer School’s out but the learning continues

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