The Great Recession strained philanthropic financial resources and the nonprofit organizations they support but also paved new avenues for collaboration. Today, we are seeing more models (e.g., learning networks, funder syndicates, venture models) that highlight collaborative funding as an increasingly popular and practical option.
When the Kessler Foundation board refocused its grantmaking program in 2005 on increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, program staff needed to explore ways to maximize our small $2.5 million grantmaking budget to influence growth in a meaningful way.
We began in earnest, exploring ways to use collaboration as a means of leveraging our modest resources to achieve measurable impact and outcomes. Public/private partnerships and shared funding models became a priority. Accordingly, we sought out innovative pilots or demonstration projects to provide proofs of concept. If successful, these programs could be scaled into larger corporate or public programs to increase employment.
Partnerships imply shared leadership by individuals who are influenced and guided by their organizational cultures and values, regardless of whether those organizations operate in the philanthropic, private, or public sector. In collaborative funding models, however, one organization often takes the lead. Partners, therefore, must have trust in others' ability to lead effectively and fairly. Communication, understanding, and goodwill are vital to success. In our experience, we've found that when partners in a project are able to "check their egos" at the door, success is much more likely. For example, it's common practice for partners to share opportunities for speaking engagements and media placements. Setting egos aside to allow others to share the spotlight is a gesture of mutual respect that will engender healthier relationships over the long term.
Kessler Foundation's participation in a pooled funding initiative, NYC: AT WORK, began with a partnership initiated by the Poses Family Foundation. The project itself began as a collaboration between the (New York City) Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) and the foundation’s Workplace Initiative, which connects people with disabilities to living-wage jobs in high-growth industries across the city’s five boroughs. The goals of the initiative were to engage two thousand New Yorkers with disabilities and develop fifteen hundred jobs over three years. The decision to include other funding partners was based on a collective realization that adding seats at the table meant broader expertise, more money, and stronger momentum. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? For us, it was. The project grew to include not only multiple funders, but business, educational, and public workforce partners, all of whom recognized collaboration as a strategy for finding good job candidates and narrowing the employment gap in the city for people with disabilities.
To achieve the project's objectives, MOPD built — and acts as an intermediary for — coalitions on both the supply and demand sides of the labor market. On the supply end, MOPD built a "talent coalition" comprising high schools, public and private colleges, community-based organizations, workforce development agencies, and ACCES-VR provider agencies. And on the demand end, it created a "business coalition" to leverage existing relationships with its Business Development Council and target its efforts at employers with the greatest commitment to and capacity for inclusive hiring. Today, the latter includes companies in high-growth industries such as Jet Blue, CVS, Uniqlo, Standard Chartered Bank, and BNP Paribas (as well as New York City government). Funders verbally agree with each other to maintain their funding commitments, while a more traditional contract is drawn up between individual funders and the grantee (MOPD).
The arrangement is evidence that funders can organize mission-centric coalitions and, through them, drive advocacy, education, and impact. By leveraging the strength of the Poses Family Foundation's public- and private-sector partners, as well as MOPD's own networks and coalitions, the project accomplished double-bottom-line objectives around targeted capacity building and community improvement. The beauty of the approach is that it increases opportunities to leverage limited resources and contributes to the development of learning networks through which partners can share valuable information and solutions. Having participated in several of these collaboratives, I am convinced of their potential for improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities. When collaborations succeed, projects achieve greater impact. And I am equally convinced that collaborative funding can move the needle on employment at the national level.
Over the past few years, public/private partnerships have represented a welcome development in the business of grantmaking. Despite this success, many programs still depend on uni-dimensional funding models that fail to produce meaningful change. Put simply, the sector needs more: more drivers, more partnerships, more visionaries, more risk-takers. Strategic grantmaking entails a deliberate, perhaps uncomfortable, shift to a paradigm characterized by imagination, inspiration, and the diligent application of data. Strategies must support transformative, self-sustaining models that catalyze new opportunities to leverage our investments and broaden the scope of our impact. More philanthropic institutions need to recognize the value of pooling their resources with like-minded funders. Traditional approaches to funding employment initiatives must be set aside in favor of broad-based efforts capable of achieving results on a much larger scale. By leveraging their resources and resolve, determined funders can empower already effective programs to double and even triple their original bottom-line objectives.
We must collectively champion a new mantra: To make a difference, we must collaborate.