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Observations on Grantee Collaboration

2014-July 30
by Nick Randell
, Program Officer

Collaboration is good right?  We think Lennon and McCartney, Rogers and Hammerstein.  Orchestras make sounds that no soloist could dream of.   Not surprisingly, foundations look to collaborative efforts as a way to magnify the impact of their investments.  Funders can get nervous when multiple providers do similar work in a community.  We'd prefer to see these entities pool their resources.  If they work together, won't we get more bang for the buck, won't we avoid a duplication of effort?  And we think we'll see more than just economies of scale.  Collaborations bring different perspectives to the table and that synthesis makes magic.  Dilbert would call that "leveraging proactive synergies."

This is all like the gestalt theory that tells us that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Well - maybe.  A more accurate translation from the German is "the whole is other than the sum of the parts."  And that's really something else entirely.  Collaboration is fine.  Except when it isn't.  Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher on the play "The Two Noble Kinsmen."  Bet you haven't seen it.  

So where is all this going?  As funders, I think we need to be wary of promoting collaboration for its own sake.   That's not to say that funders don't sometimes recognize opportunities that are legitimately best served by knitting community resources together.  But it is potentially dangerous to force potential grantees to collaborate.  Because of the program officer/grantseeker power imbalance, we have to be careful even suggesting it.   We risk having the suggestion be interpreted as an absolute directive or be taken up, however ill advisedly, just to please us.

This a little abstract, so I'll describe a recent experience with Tower funded programs that lends some substance to this conversation.  About three years ago, in our intellectual disabilities grant cycle, we received preliminary grant requests from two organizations, working largely in the same communities, that both sought to help young adults with developmental disabilities explore personal interests and possible job opportunities.   Rightly or wrongly, we picked up the phone and called both organizations (one a community college, the other a more traditional community provider of vocational support services).  We asked if they would consider resubmitting a single request laying out a joint effort for working with this population (specifically, 18- to 26-year olds).  We did say that we would consider their funding requests independently if they declined to take us up on this "suggestion," but it was hard to avoid the implication that a team effort stood a better chance of being funded.  After, presumably, some conversation - and, I expect, some anxiety - both applicants notified us that they would stand pat.  They didn't see a compelling benefit to collaborating on this particular work, at this particular time.

So what happened?  I think we respected their resistance, maybe a little grudgingly.   In the end, Tower Trustees approved funding for both projects. The projects really were distinct from each other.  And they were both successful.  One took advantage of a college campus setting to promote independence and continued learning; the other was more focused on identifying specific career interests and providing job coaching to support them.  These projects may have focused on the same population, but they spoke to very different needs.  A collaboration would have probably diluted the product, not enhanced it.

But there is an epilogue. In last year's intellectual disability cycle we received a preliminary funding request submitted jointly by these same organizations.  They envisioned an extension of the college programming for young people with disabilities that included new curriculum and internships to promote skill development in a couple of very specific fields, including animal care, horticulture, and art-related business management.  The community college knew curriculum development, even where to find dog and cat grooming manikins!  The community service provider knew how to support internships.  They also knew what industries offered potential employment and what specific skills employers were looking for.  Not too surprisingly, we are now funding this initiative.  The program welcomes its first students this fall.

We are certainly pleased that this collaborative grantee relationship blossomed, but need to recognize that it was not really of our making, and probably stronger for it.  It wasn't a collaborative opportunity that we, as funders, seized upon.  It came about much more organically.  We may have planted a seed, but then did everyone a favor by getting out of the way.

Photo by Kim S (Flickr: dearbarbie)

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