Donor Collaboratives: Maximizing Your Philanthropic Impact

NCFP’s 2015 Trends in Family Philanthropy study found that more than 90 percent of respondents cited the “impact of their giving” as the top motivation for their participation in family philanthropy. This same study found that just 45 percent of family foundations participate in efforts with other funders. If grant makers are interested in increasing the impact of their giving, they should give serious consideration to participating in a donor collaborative.

An alliance of funders that pool their resources and expertise to address shared goals, a donor collaborative can be a highly effective way to make an impact on a specific issue or issues. There are countless donor collaboratives working together for the greater good at a variety of levels – local, national, and international. One prominent example is Oceans 5.

Oceans 5 is an international funders’ collaborative comprised of new and experienced philanthropists dedicated to protecting the world’s five oceans. Oceans 5 investments support large, opportunistic projects and campaigns to establish marine reserves and constrain overfishing.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Cindy Mercer (co-founder and vice president of Planet Heritage Foundation, a partner organization of Oceans 5) and Chuck Fox, Oceans 5’s program director. They shared some practical advice about the benefits of being involved in a donor collaborative.


Donor collaboratives provide partners the opportunity to expand their philanthropic reach by leveraging their funds in ways they would not be able to on their own. “Being a part of the Oceans 5 donor collaborative allows us to have a much bigger impact than we would be able to through our foundation on our own,” says Cindy. Through Planet Heritage Foundation’s involvement in Oceans 5, their annual $1 million investment leverages over $10 million in resources for ocean conservation. Without Oceans 5, this increased impact would not be possible.


Donor collaboratives provide partners with the opportunity to combine their individual resources to capitalize on their collective strength. Successful collaboration works when each partner realizes they bring unique assets to the table. This includes more than just financial capital; it also includes personal networks, influences, and life experiences. Success happens when everyone focuses on what they do better together than separate; and this collective vision can help identify and solve problems as they arise. “In many collaborations we see two common problems, we either compromise or we dominate,” says Cindy. “Oceans 5 has worked hard to move away from a limited collaboration paradigm. We work hard to secure projects that are a third pass to this dilemma; they are not projects that require compromise or domination. Our projects are larger than what we can accomplish as grantmakers alone. They are ‘multi’: multi-stakeholders, multi-NGO, multi-government, and multi-grantmaker.”


Donor Collaboratives allow partners to take more risks with their philanthropic resources. Oceans 5 allows its partners to be more flexible in their grantmaking and to take risks they may not otherwise be able to take. For some partners, this means being able to give to areas of interest they might otherwise not have in their grantmaking portfolio. Chuck is quick to note the importance of this in relation to Oceans 5’s work in Antarctica. Most of Oceans 5 partners do not have protecting Antarctica in their foundation’s grantmaking priorities; however, Oceans 5 is working to secure marine reserves in this area.  According to Chuck, “This collaborative allows us to be opportunistic and to work in spaces we would not otherwise be able to work. This group of funders tends to be more project-oriented than program-oriented. This helps us learn and adapt in real time.”


Donor Collaboratives, when set up correctly, balance power dynamics and allow for full participation from partners.  Flourishing collaboration starts with proper governance. Cindy points out, “You can’t assume that 10 people who share the same core values will all agree on the strategies needed to go after these core values.” To mitigate this struggle, Oceans 5 created a system that manages projects in three phases:

  1. During the Developing Phase staff present rough ideas for partner deliberation. It is a relatively informal process that requires some investigation, due diligence, and dialogue or information gathering among partners and staff. In this phase, partners discuss and decide whether they would like to consider a formal, detailed proposal at a later date.
  2. Next, during the Decision Making Phase staff present a detailed proposal and budget for a formal discussion and decision by the partners. What is the feasibility of each project? What is the cost? What is the timeline and required commitment from partners? Most projects that make it to this phase include site visits and meetings with NGOs and governments. Everything is set up to allow the board to make well-informed decisions about whether to approve a project. 
  3. Finally, during the Implementation Phase staff monitor implementation to ensure the chosen projects are on track and moving forward. Staff provide regular updates to the board about progress.

When Oceans 5 started in 2001 there were four foundations that came together around their collective commitment to ocean conservation. Today 12 organizations have funded more than 50 projects around the world and have accomplished some incredible results in the world’s five oceans.   

During our conversation, Cindy wisely pointed out that, “Collaboration is hard. Collaborating just for the sake of collaborating is not a good idea.” When trials arise, if there is not a shared goal and mutual respect, it is easier to walk away. True partnership is difficult; it costs something. It requires patience, compromise, and an unwavering commitment to a cause.

Oceans 5 provides us with a glimpse of what can be accomplished when a donor collaborative focuses on a sustained commitment to a cause. There are so many social issues in need of transformation; when grantmakers work together immense change is possible.