Walking the Talk: Striving for Authentic Partnership with Our Grantees

The Perrin Family Foundation was founded in 1994 by Sheila and Charles Perrin. Several years ago, PFF shifted its mission to focus on partnering with organizations in under-resourced communities across the state of Connecticut to build environments that support young people as leaders of social change.

In November, PFF Program Officer Laura McCargar joined Michael Moody of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and NCFP Fellow and Board Member Katherine Lorenz of the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Houston, Texas to talk about collaboration in the context of family philanthropy.

Laura shared four lessons lifted from PFF’s own efforts to operate in authentic partnership with our grantees, cultivate collaboration among our grantee partners, and work collaboratively with philanthropic colleagues.

Understand how the family’s ethos informs your foundation’s approach to collaboration.

Prior to founding the Perrin Foundation, Sheila Perrin worked as a public school teacher and youth counselor. She often notes that the listening skills she learned while earning her degree in counseling have proven to be the most valuable tool in her philanthropic work. When she and her husband Charlie began to explore the possibility of creating a foundation, Sheila initially thought about creating an operating foundation focused on youth arts. When she discovered through intentional learning and relationship building that there was an already existing local organization doing the same, she worked collaboratively to help them build their initiative rather than launching one of her own. When the family foundation was formed a few years later, it was built on values already expressed in the lives and actions of its founders: listen deeply, learn from those living and doing work on the ground, and be open to an evolving vision. This ethos fuels the foundation’s collaborative spirit.

Think and act big picture, but be transparent about – and own – your motivations and purpose.

Collaboration is not a selfless act, and collaborative efforts can quickly run afoul if those involved act as though it is. Working collaboratively, in authentic partnership, requires that those engaged in the relationship are honest and transparent about their intentions and goals. At the same time, collaboration requires a willingness to see and act in support of a “bigger picture” that may not initially be within your frame. When our mission narrowed to focus specifically on youth-led social change, opportunities for collaboration with our philanthropic colleagues expanded – and also became more necessary. At PFF, this means that we can be counted on to raise questions about youth voice, engagement and leadership at any table we find ourselves. It also requires that we see and understand how young people’s lives are intertwined with those of their parents, caregivers, and community members. Youthled social change efforts benefit from the existence of robust community-led social change efforts, so while our grantmaking focuses on youth, we are thinking about and working collaboratively with others to strengthen and deepen infrastructure for community organizing across the board.

If you want to see collaboration among grantees, invest in opportunities for people to build authentic relationships with one another.

When PFF shifted its vision and mission to focus on youth led social change, we engaged in a year-long scan where we asked youth and practitioners to help us understand the challenges and barriers facing the field in CT. Among the most frequently cited challenges were the sense of isolation youth organizing groups felt and the philanthropic practices that exacerbate a sense of competition among groups, ultimately hindering collaborative work.

As we translated our field scan learning into a new grant strategy, PFF prioritized creating spaces and opportunities for our grantee partners to simply be together, learn together and build relationships with one another, without expectation that they would engage in a shared project or shared work. We have a designated minigrant fund for peer exchanges, which underwrites travel, food or meeting expenses when groups want to visit each other. And if that relationship building leads to an interest in further collaborative work, we have a mini-grant fund that supports grantee partners to work together on planning a shared event or project.

Creating conditions that support collaboration also requires that foundations appropriately calibrate their sense of time and expected timetables for “outcomes.” Building authentic relationships take time. Our Building Leadership and Organizing Capacity (BLOC) initiative brings together youth-adult leadership teams from youth organizing groups around the state to strengthen and improve their organizing capacity. Through monthly meetings and twice-yearly retreats, BLOC has intentionally been designed to be a space where folks can learn together, build trust, be honest about their challenges and struggles, and develop a sense of shared purpose. After the first two years of the initiative, groups regularly attend and support each other’s events and organizing actions, exchange tools and curriculum resources, and have shared tips and insights when pursuing other foundation funding.

Rigorously examine how your own work as a foundation aligns with the expectations you hold of your grantees.

Practicing what you preach, as the saying goes, is easier said than done. Holding your own institution to the same expectations as you hold of your grantees will help ensure that you better understand the nuanced dynamics of and inherent challenges of collaborative work. When combined with an institutional commitment to continuous learning and reflective practice, you can become a more attuned, grounded funder, and will be better poised to build authentic relationships with grantee partners.

At PFF, we recognize that social change requires examining and challenging existing dynamics of power, so we try to be particularly mindful of how power plays out in our relationships our grantee partners. We encourage our grantee partners to learn from their peers and work outside of the “silos” of issue area and geography, and we strive to do the same. Recognizing that we could face the same challenge of “isolation” that many of our grantee partners face, we joined the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a national collaborative that aims to increase philanthropic investment in and strengthen the organizational capacities of youth organizing groups across the country. Through FCYO, we learn from both practitioners and foundations working in communities and regions with more established youth organizing infrastructure, broadening our own exposure to the potential and impact of youth-led change. More recently, PFF has begun to convene a local learning network of funders interested in supporting community organizing efforts in Connecticut.

For more tips on collaboration, check out Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s most recent publication, Building Collaboration from the Inside Out