Every Collaboration Needs Some Structure (Part 2 of 4)

Courtesy of Kindel Media from Pexels

Courtesy of Kindel Media from Pexels

As the second part of our series on 21st Century Collaboration, we explore a common tension that often arises for family foundations caught between a desire for open collaboration and a need for a clear governance structure. Our interviews with over 25 innovative philanthropic and socially-minded organizations (some of whom are listed at the end of the full article in the Knowledge Center) surfaced these key insights to ensure that a governance structure is supporting the goals of the collaboration, rather than compromising them.


Many forms of governance can set collaborations up for success because it helps participants understand expectations and navigate complex power relations when families are working together.

Aligning early on common values and goals simplifies decision making for the rest of the collaboration.

At the very heart of a good collaboration is a common set of values and goals. Establishing these with all stakeholders early on can greatly simplify decisions and avoid unnecessary conflict. Before work begins in earnest, it is important to zoom out and consider the bigger ideas, timelines, and what personally drives each stakeholder. This helps set the stage for the right conversations, identify and address any mis- alignment and establishes a north star for participants as they develop strategy and governance. We heard this most often as something that was absent when interviewees described collaborations that did not succeed.

Governance models that support clear communication, roles, and transparency of practices are critical to healthy collaboration.

Once a group is clear on what they want to accomplish, the details of the best supporting governance structure will follow. Neglecting to establish a governing structure can result in contentious discussions and decisions later on that leave bad feelings and eventually break down the effectiveness of the collaboration. The complexity of governance models often increases as more participants are involved. Regardless of its complexity, a good governance model is one where everyone knows the rules and what to expect from each other. This can be achieved by incorporating communication norms and role definition into governance structures. Establishing a formal “rule book” can also offset power dynamics and asymmetries before they become disruptive. The opposite is also true—poorly defined and obscure governance can make it extremely challenging to collaborate across various power dynamics and relationships.

Clear communication on roles is critical
The absence of clear expectations and rules can be corrosive to collaborations. In the case of a family foundation entering its 3rd generation, a board chair appointed his daughter to join the foundation’s board without seeking input from fellow family members who also served on the board. Frustrations arose due to dissatisfaction with the daughter’s performance, as well as her appointment occurring at the exclusion of other relatives. More clearly articulated governance practices might have kept this foundation intact. Defining the criteria for serving on a foundation board is a simple governance fix that prevents confusion and frustration. This can involve more than simply being “born into it.” Sample criteria include educational and professional attainment, participation in site visits, and a level of attendance and preparation prior to board meetings.


  • How would each collaborator describe the desired impact of your efforts?
  • What values do you share and how are these shaping the way you conceptualize impact?
  • Do all collaborators understand what is expected of them and where they fit into the larger effort?

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.