Foundations open up about the benefits of cross-sector collaboration

The future of philanthropy is working across boundaries

Why It Matters

With societal challenges becoming increasingly complex, foundations are looking to play a more active role in social and environmental change. As more foundations move from traditional grant-making to cross-sector collaborations, here’s what they have to gain. This article is the first of a three-part series in partnership with Philanthropic Foundations Canada.

Canada has more philanthropic foundations than ever before. As they work across the country and spend more than $6 billion each year, a greater spotlight is being placed on the role that foundations play in social and environmental change.

Traditionally, foundations in Canada and around the world have tended to work independently, providing grants to charities. However, as government resources shrink and the problems facing society become increasingly complex, foundations are increasingly looking to take a more proactive role.

The global climate emergency and affordable housing crisis, for example, necessitates the involvement of everyone from citizens and governments to businesses and the non-profit sector. Armed with a large supply of capital and a capacity to take risks – without being accountable to shareholders or voters – foundations can bring a lot more to the table as a partner than through traditional grant-making.

“You see the immensity of the social, economic, and environmental challenges that we’re facing now,” said Claude Pinard, Executive Director of the Fondation Mirella et Lino Saputo in Saint-Leonard, Quebec. “It is the immensity of the challenges that is provoking the interest in collaborating.”

Working across boundaries can happen in various ways – from arms-length information-sharing to more formal partnerships with one or more organizations from the public, private or non-profit sectors. 

Whichever shape it takes, collaborating tends to be much less simple than going it alone. Nonetheless, more and more foundations are choosing to do it. 

So what’s all the hype about, and what benefits can foundations gain from cross-sector collaboration?

Opening minds

One of the most significant benefits of cross-sector collaboration is what foundations can learn about both the communities they help and the partners they work with.

“When you’re around the table and you can benefit from everybody’s interventions, you learn a lot,” said Pinard, “not only about the makeup of the neighbourhood where you’re going to intervene, but on where philanthropy is going and how we should be helping.”

This may sound simple, but a survey by the Bridgespan Group found “learning more” and “forming important relationships in the sector” were the most commonly reported benefits for funders working together.

This survey asked about foundation collaborations within the sector; when working with partners from different sectors, even more can be learned. “In each sector, everyone has different knowledge, information, and skills which other sectors can benefit from,” said Vivien Carli, Program Director of The Gordon Foundation. “People are coming from different points of view and different realities.”

The Gordon Foundation has brought people from diverse backgrounds together from northern Canada for Northern Policy Hackathons. The participants, from the three territories and Inuit Nunangat, include business owners, community members, government representatives, and Indigenous leaders.

At the hackathon, participants develop policy recommendations on community issues and submit these recommendations to the federal government to shape policy. To date, three hackathons have been held in Nain, Iqaluit, and Inuvik. The latest hackathon, in May 2019, developed recommendations on housing in the North.

“It has allowed people to open their minds a little bit more and listen to others,” said Carli. Usually, conversations invite specific people from a sector to discuss a specific issue, but there’s little opportunity for conversation across sectors.

The foundation acts as the convener, a role that other organizations with a specific mandate, like government, cannot always play. “Because we’re a neutral body and we have really good relations across the North, people are able to come and express their ideas freely,” said Carli.

A coordinated approach

Another reason foundations pursue cross-sector collaborations is to build a more coordinated strategy in tackling social or environmental problems.

“One of the biggest benefits is that you stop piecemealing,” said Pinard. When working together with partners, within and outside the sector, a better solution is possible than could be achieved working alone. 

Fondation Mirella et Lino Saputo is one of nine foundations in Quebec working on the Collective Impact Project (CIP), a collaborative model launched in 2015 to tackle poverty in 17 Montreal neighbourhoods. Run by Centraide (United Way) of Greater Montreal, the foundations are investing $23 million over five years. The CIP also has public sector partners including the Direction régionale de la santé publique de Montréal (Montreal regional public health authority) and the City of Montreal.

In this collaboration, the CIP engaged residents and other local stakeholders who expressed their neighbourhood’s priorities. With the support of Centraide on the ground as the project manager and intermediary, the communities themselves developed action plans for their neighbourhoods, which are being implemented and evaluated by local community agencies in close partnership with local institutions.

“For us it changed our whole approach,” said Pinard. “We knew that we needed citizens and community organizations involved in the process of our decision, but I’m not sure I would have known how to do that.”

Projects funded by the CIP have ranged from creating local food systems to access to housing, all tailored to meet the local communities’ biggest needs. In one community, for example, 250 marginalized young people have been given horticultural work experience in the neighbourhood’s new sustainable food system. Though it is too early for full evaluation results, the project could represent a powerful new form of community collaboration.

Power in the room

In recent years, questions have been raised about foundations’ independence and their lack of public accountability. Making social and environmental changes might be a public good, but is it right for foundations to make those decisions?

Pinard says the best way to counter this attitude is to have communities, people, and organizations sit around the table as equals when making decisions.

Trust is vitally important in the integration of immigrants and refugees. In the United States, the non-profit Welcoming America works with local foundations, businesses, and citizens to bolster their ability to support new neighbours.

“Traditionally, when a community changes demographically, there’s not really anybody that’s in charge of making sure that goes well,” said Rachel Peric, Welcoming America’s Executive Director. One in eight Americans now lives in a community within their network, and the model has started to scale globally.

Welcoming America brings together people from various sectors to create a comprehensive policy agenda, and to decide what it means for them to be a welcoming community. The people at the table varies by community. In Atlanta, for example, business plays a larger role than usual in the proceedings because “that’s just the Atlanta way,” Peric explained. 

The overall result, however, is something more fundamental than the agenda itself. “The product isn’t just that set of policies,” said Peric. “Trust and relationships are the currency of strong communities and strong economies,” and foundations can play a vital role in making that happen as a convener. “Typically, that’s not something that philanthropy funds,” she said.

Moving the needle

These examples of cross-sector collaboration demonstrate something clearly: organizations embark on partnerships out of necessity.

It takes more than one organization to integrate immigrants, reduce poverty, and help rural and remote communities. When facing the biggest social and environmental problems that Canada and the world face, working with others – within and outside the charitable sector – is essential. 

And in these cross-sector collaborations, foundations play a vital role. As an independent funder and convener, they can encourage information-sharing across sectors, pool resources and expertise, and help to build trusting relationships in the communities they serve.

“The issues we deal with demand cross-sector partnerships,” said Carli. “If we don’t work together, we’re not going to have the proper solutions.”