Foundation Collaboration: Lessons Learned

In General

Southeast Michigan Funders Leverage a History of Partnership
Last month, the Detroit Head Start Early Childhood Education Innovation Fund received some recognition from the White House when Cecelia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, came to town for the Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families annual conference.

The Innovation Fund, a collaborative of eight local foundations, has dedicated nearly $4.9 million to supporting the redesign of Head Start in Detroit. Administered here at the Community Foundation, the Innovation Fund not only seeks to inspire the Head Start agencies to work together, but also allows for the foundation community itself to learn together, leverage activities and fund more strategically.

In a panel session, a group of the funders sat alongside Ms. Muñoz, continuing to send a message that we work together, and thus, the White House should know that Detroit is a place to do business. The region is ripe for stewarding federal funds and promoting new and innovative strategies.

The session got some attention and led several people to ask me, “Why are the foundations working so much more together lately? When did this start happening?”

Well, a quick history lessons tells us foundation collaboration is not new in this community. In fact, a recent internal scan told me that the Community Foundation alone has been involved in more than 50 special projects since our inception 30 years ago, each of which involved at least two or more foundations rallying around a specific topic of mutual interest.

In the early years, of course, the magnitude of the collaborations was smaller, but the structure was similar. Take, for example, the Energy Initiative in 1987 – 1990. Here the Community Foundation distributed $2.4 million to reduce energy costs in facilities owned or leased by nonprofit organizations.

Half of the money came from a portion of the Exxon restitution funds through the State of Michigan; half from an additional five funders – Detroit Edison, Michigan Consolidated Gas, Consumer’s Energy, the McGregor Fund and the Kresge Foundation.

Another example…From 1996 – 2002, the Community Foundation ran the African-American Legacy Program, working to inform and assist individuals interested in strengthening and enhancing the African American community through charitable giving. Over $650,000 in support was provided to the project from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Mott Foundation, CFSEM, Associated Black Charities, Forum of the Regional Association of Grantmakers, and the former Whitney Fund.

In the later years, as the Community Foundation demonstrated it could be a fair home for these sorts of activities, it led to some larger scale collaborative grantmaking, such as the $25 million GreenWays Initiative and the $100 million (and growing) New Economy Initiative.

While we’ve been doing this important, methodical work, what’s important to recognize now – as Detroit takes center stage – is that it’s critical that our collaborative activity stay in lock step to move major agendas forward. Our foundation collaborations are having a “coming out” party of sorts.

So, “what’s new” is not the ability to collaborate, but the potential magnitude of the collaborations. The possible leverage is on a much different, larger scale, both because of the range of the opportunities, and because of the growing size of the foundations themselves.

How will we be successful in working in this way? Experience tells us that, as with any kind of collaboration, you need to do a few things, and do them well:

You need to decide when to step forward and when to step back – both as individual foundations within a collaborative, as well as the collaborative as a whole.

You need to be clear on the front end about how decisions get made, making a level playing field among partners.

You need to be clear on your mission, and what does and does not fall inside of it.

And finally, you need to be clear on your implementation plan. One can have the best strategic agenda in the world, but without the accompanying “hard work” plan of implementation, it will fall apart.

In a world where collaboration is now a buzz word, and is a concept we often ask others to aspire to, it’s only right that we keep holding the mirror up, and work to achieve it with our own peers as well.

So, to the outside world I’d say… keep watching and keep investing. The southeast Michigan funders are here to work with you. We know it’s not always easy or simple to make partnerships work, but we’ve been practicing for years, and are now ready to take it to the big leagues.

Note: Foundations participating in the Detroit Head Start Early Childhood Education Fund include: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Skillman Foundation, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the McGregor Fund, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Colina Foundation, The Jewish Fund, the PNC Bank Foundation and the Bosch Foundation.