Participating in a Funder’s Collaborative: The Benefits of Working Together

When colleagues from two East Coast foundations, one family, one private, learned of a new national collaborative fund that would invest in education organizing, they saw an opportunity. After working collaboratively on a proposal with other local funders and education organizing groups, their region was selected for one of the grants.

As the director of the family foundation recalled, her board had never funded “anything without the very clear goals and outcomes you get in other kinds of funding situations. Saying you’re going to get parents more interested in the schools is great, but exactly how are you going to do that and who are you going to rely on? It’s a very complicated process.” Conversations were sometimes “difficult. Board members would say, ’What are we really doing here? Can you really do anything in a relatively short period of time?’”

A prominent member of the board had a family background in labor organizing, which was very helpful. Even so, said the executive director, “I don’t think we would’ve done this had it not been a collaborative venture with seven other funders, both local and national. I think I was able to sell this because it has a lot of sophisticated thinking behind it, complete with a major evaluation component.”

The eight grantmakers were able to help one another in conversations with their boards. A question came from one board member: “Are you telling me this is a better use of money than training a teacher or equipping a library?” The answer came from a colleague at another foundation: “The parents are going to advocate for more money for those libraries, and they’ll get it.”

What have been some of the early concerns? Worries about the pace of change and priorities have surfaced. For example, the school system in one city needed to hire a new superintendent, and the funders wanted the organizers to get involved. “How can we encourage the community organizing groups to take this up as an issue without violating their process? That’s an interesting challenge for grantmakers,” one funder explained. In the end, the organizers decided to tackle the superintendent search as well as school construction issues.