From big mouths to big egos, personality conflicts can be a major factor in sinking a funder collaborative, but it’s often pushed aside because, well, it’s personal. As one funder notes: “Policy change is hard enough, but it gets even harder when there are really strong personalities involved, and they want to do it a particular way. Or it’s ‘their’ money and if they don’t get what they want, they don’t come back. Sometimes all of that doesn’t happen very elegantly, and that can lead to hard feelings.”
At the same time, strong and “distinct” personalities are often critical to imagining new solutions, leadership, and moving work forward. “Avoiding strong personalities isn’t the answer. Some of my favorite and most successful collaborators would have been barred!” The sticking point is not strong personalities themselves, but rather how various personalities are managed in a group setting. Ideally, personalities can complement one another to create a positive, collaborative, and forward-moving spirit. However, as we heard from many funders, that ideal can be challenging to achieve, and can have serious consequences.
Stories From the Real World
We had one funder in our collaborative who had very strong ideas about their theory of change being the ‘right’ one. While they were fighting with the rest of the group, our poor grantees were waiting like kids in the middle of a divorce who didn’t want to run afoul of the parents. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reconcile it. We continued to do our work, but not in alignment, which hurt our grantees.
We had to deal with some bullies at the table who hijacked the process, and everyone knew it was happening. These two funders hated each other, and it was always horrible when they got together.
So, how do funder policy collaboratives deal with this prickly issue?
Choose members carefully. Most funder collaboratives are donor supported, which means that fundraising and member cultivation will be part of the group’s work. That can sometimes lead to chasing the money, rather than assessing whether potential donors will actually be good partners. “Some people are better suited to be in a collaborative because they’re open to new ideas and are collegial. Our collaborative has some big heavy hitters who could swallow up the small funders in a second, but they don’t stand on ceremony. They see value in everyone at the table rather than sucking up a lot of room and air.”
Other groups aren’t so fortunate. “I was coordinating an advocacy collaborative that was going to involve someone who had a lot of money and cared about the issue. But it was clear he wasn’t going to be a good partner because he wanted a lot of say about what got done and how. If that happened, the other partners would lose control of the initiative. So, I asked the group: ‘We can invite that person to be part of the collaborative, but do we want to?’ They decided not to, but even if the decision had gone the other way, they realized it’s really important to think about who you want to be part of a collaborative.”
Assess your own ability to be part of a collaborative and be honest about your limitations. Funders agree that unless you’re willing to let go of a fair amount of control, “you have no business being in a collaborative, which requires letting go of the need to drive your own agenda and realizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Also, funders need to be transparent with the group when they’re caught between their institutions' desires and their own desires. “If you’re there to learn and that’s pretty much it, you need to put that on the table, especially if you’re going to be a hold out on other agendas. And if you’re holding out because of your institution, you need to say that too.” And, finally, there are the practical realities. Do funders have the time and energy, personally, to commit to this work?
Prepare diligently for meetings. The more organized and prepared the collaborative’s leaders or its staff is before meetings, the less chance there is for misunderstanding. “The secret to minimizing conflict is going in and knowing what it’s going to look like. That means you have to talk to people beforehand, and people need to know what to expect. I have very focused conversations with each attendee before every meeting so they know what the docket looks like. I ask what their concerns are and try to address them, or at least, prepare them for disagreements.”
Please click here for information on GrantCraft’s methodology for this research.