Key Lessons for Sustained Collaboration Funders

Through the Nurturing Nonprofit Collaborations report, philanthropic funders can learn about the importance of sustained collaboration, identify the features of a quality application, and hear success stories from organizations nationwide. Grantmakers can learn critical lessons about sustained collaboration from this report. Here are a few key takeaways. 

The report is based on original research by NNSI founding director Michelle Shumate. After the original screening of 58 projects by Sustained Collaboration Network Initiative Managers, 20 collaborations were ultimately selected for deeper case studies. The Sustained Collaboration Network, a network of nonprofit funders and intermediaries, funded the report’s research and nominated its grantees to be included. 

Insights for Funders

Lesson 1: Use microgrants to educate nonprofit leaders and boards about sustained collaboration

Microgrants, worth about $2500, were essential in supporting nonprofits unfamiliar with mergers, asset transfers, shared project collaboratives, and alliances. They allowed leaders and board members to learn about their options. For example, Aina Gutierrez, the executive director of the Rebuilding Exchange, asserted that grant support was critical for her organization’s first merger experience. “The Mission Sustainability Initiative money was critical because, while we could have tried to do this on our own, I had never had any experience with mergers and acquisitions,” she said. 

Laura Solomon, the legal counsel for Share Food Program, recommends utilizing microgrants for nonprofits pursuing sustained collaboration. With funding from the Repositioning Fund, Solomon leads workshops for nonprofit leaders considering a partnership. During these interactive presentations, she walks through various topics, from the anatomy of nonprofit affiliation to the use of Shared Service Agreements. These workshops help educate directors, officers, and staff members and foster honest discussions between potential partners. Additionally, they serve as productive vetting mechanisms before collaboration begins. 

Lesson 2: Use smaller grants to allow social impact leaders to explore collaboration

Exploratory grants allow organizations to navigate their new collaborative venture carefully. However, the type of collaboration determines what these grants are best used to do. For mergers or asset transfers, exploratory grants allow organizations to conduct due diligence on potential integration, ranging from legal investigations to evaluating contingent liabilities.  

Shared service and program collaborations benefit from exploratory grants but use them to conduct feasibility analysis. For example, Dallas After School used an exploratory grant from the Better Together Fund to conduct a feasibility analysis for Early Childhood and Out of School Time, a shared service collaborative. They hired a consultant to assess the demand for a shared staffing model and the appetite to support it. 

Exploratory grants are helpful to shared project collaboratives to launch pilot projects. They allow partners to test ideas. Arts Access used an exploratory grant from the Better Together initiative to develop a pilot program for NPR affiliate KERA and The Dallas Morning News focused on local arts coverage. After the success of the original partner program, the news outlets began a formal partnership. 

Alliances and networks use exploratory grants to create a common agenda. Exploratory grants allow networks to define common goals and evaluate the possibility of yielding autonomy to reach shared objectives. Success can take on different forms when Sustained Collaboration Initiatives award exploratory grants. Full Spectrum Features, a Chicago-based nonprofit film production company and distributor, applied for a grant from the Mission Sustainability Initiative. However, while conducting due diligence, both organizations realized cooperation was not in their best interests. Rather than viewing this outcome as a failure, Kate Piatt-Eckert, Mission Sustainability Initiative Director, views this exploratory grant as a success. “All the organizations involved got all the information they needed to make the best decision for their organization,” she said.


Lesson 3: Link nonprofits to vetted technical assistance and consulting professionals

The connections between grantmakers and consultants are invaluable in the sustained collaboration process and the financial support they provide.  These connections contributed to positive outcomes for organization leaders seeking professional support for the first time. For instance, Margaret Black, the Managing Director at Better Together Fund member LH Capital, connected leaders from DVBeds to technology providers to enhance the bed availability platform. 

Kate Piat-Eckert describes the importance of utilizing these connections: “If you need a strategic planning consultant, you know how to Google strategic planning consultant. However, developing partnerships requires so many different levels of expertise that organizations typically engage in once in their careers.” The Sustained Collaboration Network has a vetted consultant community specializing in collaboration. 

Additionally, Austin Together has developed a novel way to provide technical assistance. They offer guides to all collaborations they fund to help navigate the early stages of sustained collaboration. These vetted nonprofit and business leaders coach groups exploring a potential collaboration process. Karen LaShelle, the Executive Director of Austin Together, said guides help groups evaluate questions such as “Why would we want to do this collaboration?” and “Is this the right group of people?”

Lesson 4: Commit to sustained collaboration for the long haul if they continue to make progress

This study found that integrated organizations with documented positive outcomes required at least two funding rounds. Multiple rounds of funding are essential for networks to grow and evolve. For example, multiple funding rounds allowed Plunum Health’s partners to improve collaboration and utilize AI to address health-related social needs in case management. 

Carrie Harlow, the Director of the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, details the multiple rounds of funding with Plunum Health, a collaboration among three federally qualified health centers in Los Angeles. “We provide exploratory funding and implementation funding, and in addition, we’ve had at least once, maybe twice, hosted a convening to give the organizations an opportunity to share their progress with the funders,” she said. “And not just our current funders within the initiative, but also a broader community of funders interested in the work they’re pursuing.”

The Case for Sustained Collaboration

Sustained collaborations allow for improved efficiency and strategic change amongst organizations. Grantmakers interested in serving as sources of support and catalyzing social impact should explore the potential for funding sustained collaboration. 

You can download your copy of the reports at the Sustained Collaboration website. Check out the Sustained Collaboration Network podcast series to listen to conversations featuring leaders in sustained collaboration. Funders might especially appreciate the Initiative Managers Panel and the Funders Panel episodes, where grantmakers offer insights into nurturing sustained collaboration.