Intentional Collaboration is a Group Effort (Part 1 of 4)

Courtesy of Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Courtesy of Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

As philanthropists lean into global challenges like climate change and economic inequality, it is easy to see that no one person or organization can shift the tide on these issues by themselves. To move the needle on these complex problems we must understand how to work together better, both externally with our partners as well as internally across groups and generations.

Interviews with innovative philanthropic and socially-minded organizations to investigate the role of collaboration in the philanthropic space revealed when it accelerates impact, and when it doesn’t. We spoke with over 25 organizations, including foundations, social accelerators, and organizations that advise high net worth individuals and families (some of whom are listed at the end of the full article in the Knowledge Center). While we saw variety in the approaches and experiences of these organizations, all found enormous benefits and challenges to collaborating. In this series we summarize the four major themes that arose. The first of these is focused on setting the stage for impactful collaboration—Coming Together.

Coming Together

Whatever form it takes, strong collaboration emerges from establishing the relationships and support necessary to weather challenging conversations, complex information, and limited time.

Done intentionally, investing in networks and relationships can create rich opportunities for collaboration.

Bringing the right people together and harnessing their common passion can create energy and momentum around new opportunities to collaborate. Any collaboration, however, must be designed to continuously build and grow relationships, otherwise it may fail. Actively building networks through hosting or joining convenings, learning gatherings, and affinity groups can help individuals and institutions expand those whom they know and trust, and paves new roads for meaningful collaboration.

Creating time and space for shared learning was cited as critical to setting the stage for alignment, but is often overlooked or under-resourced.

Interviewees said that learning together builds relationships as well as knowledge, however, few had a concrete learning curriculum or dedicated structures to support it. Some organizations focused their learning internally whereas others relied on external convenings, panels and events to learn from outside experts in the field. Storytelling also stood out as a powerful, but often underutilized, tool for learning and to galvanize collaboration.

Collaborations need staff support to deliver on their potential.

While maintaining rich and diverse relationships are central to the success of collaborations, pairing them with the right support professionals enhances sustainability. We heard across organizations that a professional staff person is needed to help the collaboration progress and eventually succeed, specifically someone who is not a primary collaborator. Staff with such a mandate help to facilitate or broker relationships, manage meetings to reduce friction so that the collaboration can succeed. This role can take many forms to fit a specific scenario—match-maker, facilitator, mediator, volunteer coordinator, and/or project manager.

Identifying the right support structure is critical
There is often untapped opportunity in leveraging existing infrastructure to achieve impact, but it requires identifying someone to be responsible for making connections and pushing collaborations forward. One philanthropic advising organization told us about an effort to bridge the disconnect between community college graduates in lower-income communities and potential employers. At the time, no one was paid to facilitate those connections so there was zero communication between employers and educational institutions. They found that the most successful grants were actually those that funded a specific staff member to make those connections.


  • Where are there opportunities to expand your network and bring in new perspectives?
  • Does your collaboration have the support it needs to maximize progress towards your goals?

Debi Blizard is the Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

Zoe True is the Associate Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.