How do funders influence the outcomes of nonprofit collaboration?

By: Michelle Shumate

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on the ways that funders influence the outcomes of nonprofit collaboration. I’ve synthesized some of my comments below and there’s a link to the full panel video at the bottom of this post.

 What do we know about philanthropy and social impact and its connections to networks and collaboration?

We know that both the philanthropic sector and government agencies have encouraged collaboration and networking for well over 20 years (Doerfel, Atouba, & Harris, 2017; Huxham & Vanagen, 2013). We know that program officers use collaboration reporting as signaling the quality of the work (Lyndsay Young – 2014). And we know that philanthropy and social contagion drive the adoption of particular management models in networks, like collective impact. In our research at NNSI, we found that collective impact initiatives were in 1/3 of United Way catchment area and that we could predict the reason for the adoption based on the resources in the community and contagion.

We know that philanthropy can make a difference for networks in several ways. First, using Valerie Shapiro’s randomized control trial research on Communities that Care coalitions – technical assistance makes a difference in the outcomes that networks achieve in their communities. In her research, those that received technical assistance rather than a grant for equal money instead were able to reduce young people’s uptake of substance abuse in their community. Second, drawing on the work from Brint Milward, Keith Provan, and Patrick Kenis, we know that stability in funding matters. Networks who receive funding through the same lead agency tend to have better service outcomes for the populations that they serve.

What are the gaps in knowledge and research?

We know a lot about human service networks and the outcomes they have for clients. However, we know very little about networks of other types – including advocacy networks, network with a large geographic reach, and cross-sector networks that include businesses, governments, and nonprofits working alongside each other. This isn’t so much a gap in generalizability, but a substantive gap because of the challenges of measuring outcomes in other ways.

How could we go about addressing those gaps?

I think we have to move beyond the case-even the social network analysis case study- to really get a comparison to the counterfactual. We need research that goes both broad (looking at multiple networks) and deep. Most qualitative comparative analysis studies that examine 30 or more of these networks do so from a single or couple interviews per network. Most social network analysis research focuses on 1 or 2 networks, but from the perspective of every organization involved. We need to bridge the gap between the two.

What are the challenges that remain/what is preventing us from advancing the research?

Funding and time – We are in the middle of a three-year grant from the Army Research Office examining 28 networks across the country doing education reform. We are doing surveys with each of the organization in these networks, including collecting social network data, which means doing hundreds of interviews. The scope of these projects requires significant resources to do them well.

In looking at different types of collaboration, such as emergent or planned networks or partnerships, what are the implications on our ability to achieve social impact?

  • Most research that examines what I’ll call serendipitous networks, or networks that are created through the self-organizing process of partnerships and are best seen by researchers conducting social network analysis, tend to study results at the organizational level. They look at things like survival rate, resource accumulation, or – even some of my research in organizational capacity. While these outcomes are good, to me they aren’t social impact.
  • Planned networks, in contrast, know they are a network. They operate often like an association or a large coalition. Most research on these networks examines outcomes at the whole network level – things like better service to clients, changes in outcomes at the community level or for the population served.
  • My take, based on my experience, is that both networks can achieve social impact. But only planned networks aim (at least some of the time) to make changes at the ecosystem or community level.

What have we learned about how networks and partnership development and can best serve communities? How do they address the challenges of bringing together different constituencies to solve a social problem?

I’ll talk about planned networks here. When a group of people or organization creates a network, there are many choices to be made:

  • Which organizations should be a part of a network?
  • How should they be identified and recruited?
  • Should individual citizens be a part or just organizational representatives?
  • How can organizations join or leave the network?
  • How should the activity be coordinated?
  • Who will be in charge of the network and how “in charge” will they be?
  • How can the network establish legitimacy with external stakeholders?

In examining the networks that we have over the years, I don’t’ think there is a “right” answer to these questions. Instead, I am a firm believer in equifinality when it comes to networks and social impact. There is more than one way to do this.

In our current research in education reform networks, we talk about tensions in these choices. A strong network administrative organization leading and convening the network from the top-down often means that equity practices, like inviting the most community members to be a part of the decision-making process, don’t happen. It’s a tension. Similarly, there’s a tension between network inclusivity, or really permeable entrance and exits, and network stability. Each of these has an influence on the type of social impact that achieved.

What are the different roles that foundations play in catalyzing or supporting networks and collaborations?

There are at least 2:

  • The network orchestrator– This is when the foundation brings together the players in the network and encourages them to form a network. Sometimes these processes can be quite directive and some funders leave a lot of leeway in the form that the network will take.
  • Pace-setter – The second role that foundations play is a pace-setter. One of the interesting side findings in Joerg Raab and Patrick Kenis’ research is that social impact takes time – in their research at least 3 years. Funders who allow for longer timelines before needing to see real concrete wins or demanding a sustainability plan too early are likely to see better social impact. But some funders, in part because of their stakeholders, push faster and harder.

How is social impact construed/understood in different types of collaborations or networks? Are there different ways we should be thinking about social impact differently?

In my own work, I draw from both the program evaluation literature and from typology that Popp and Milward (among others) put together in their IBM governance literature review on interorganizational networks.

First, I make a distinction between output and outcomes. Outputs are the number of people in beds, outcomes are the number of people that get well. Or to give another example from the America Serves networks – outputs are the number of veterans referred through their networks and outcomes are the number of needs that are satisfactorily addressed. For me, social impact is an outcome, not an output.

Second, I make the distinction between outcomes at the organizational, network, and ecosystem or community level. Organizational outcomes are things like learning, innovation, and increased capacity. Network outcomes are things like efficiency, new linkages, and network growth. Ecosystem or community outcomes is where I think social impact happens. The other two are good, but in and of themselves, they don’t equal social impact for me.


See the entire panel here