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Chris Essel’s Blog Post in the NonProfit Times: The Cost of Collaboration Can Be Brutal -- And Edible

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What keeps me up at night? I have nightmares about cannibals. It’s not a phobia. It’s a perfectly reasonable and realistic fear in the nonprofit sector. Let me explain.

My organization, Southern California Grantmakers, is a membership association for foundations, companies, and government funders. We’re one of 33 independent “Regional Associations of Grantmakers” across the country. You could think of us as a Chamber of Commerce for philanthropy, where grantmakers come together to learn, connect, and take action.

We recently held a full-day retreat with our board of directors. At one point, we asked them to line up on a continuum from the left-hand wall to the right-hand window, where the wall indicated support for “SCG as a provider of training and member services for grantmakers” and the window was “SCG as a platform for leadership and collaboration.” The whole room practically fell out of the window as most of our Board rushed towards the vision of SCG as a leadership organization truly catalyzing change on the issues of greatest concern to our members.

That’s such an exciting vision, and it’s a newer model for regional association leadership that SCG is helping to pioneer. However, collaboration requires capacity and instead, I am seeing early warning signs that collaboration can actually lead to cannibalization.

For most membership organizations like SCG, dues alone cover a fraction of what it costs to provide basic programs and services for our members. We’ve always filled the gap by depending on operating grants and sponsorships coming from our leading members who understand the critical role of infrastructure organizations in nurturing a vibrant and effective philanthropic sector.

Moving beyond this traditional role and into real systems-change work requires a whole new level of investment… in many cases from those same leading funders.

For example, we are currently launching a statewide collaboration called Philanthropy California with our colleague organizations Northern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers. It is aimed at lifting the voices of all three Regional Associations and our combined more than 600 members. Together, we can take on initiatives and policy issues that affect our entire state. Our leading members have told me they are happy to provide funding to support such collaborations. But in some cases, these kinds of project-driven investments are beginning to cut into longtime core funding. I do suspect this pattern is true for other more traditional nonprofits.

What gives me hope in the middle of the night is that Philanthropy California is already driving a conversation with our members about “Full Cost Funding” for nonprofits. This is part of a growing national movement to educate funders and change the narrative about what it truly takes to create strong and sustainable organizations that are capable of delivering the results funders want from their grantees.

I’m also hopeful because I see a wave of recognition happening now across the social-change ecosystem. Everyone is realizing that we can’t solve complex problems if we each stay in our silos. We’ve got to collaborate. Collaboration is hard work and it takes a strong facilitator to nurture an effective collaboration and keep it moving forward.

Regional Associations like SCG are uniquely well-positioned for this type of place-based work because we are a neutral convenor. We know who to bring to the table from across the nonprofit, philanthropy, government, and corporate sectors. We can be the commons where collaborations grow… but funders need to recognize that collaborations are the branches of the tree, not the tree itself. You can’t just water the branches and expect them to thrive.

Honestly, I don’t mind losing sleep over this because it’s important, and I want SCG to be part of the solution. I would sleep a little easier if I knew there was a growing and shared understanding across our sector about what it takes to stimulate and support the conversation, coordination, and collaboration that funders crave.

It takes real time and it costs real money, and we need to be unafraid to say so. I hope you’ll add your voice to this difficult but important conversation in your own partnerships.

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