How can 21st century collaboration enable greater social impact?

Courtesy of Mapbox

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. A large family foundation asked us to investigate the role of collaboration in the philanthropic space to better understand when it accelerates impact, and when it doesn’t.

To begin, Intentional Futures conducted interviews with innovative philanthropic and socially-minded organizations to help us shed light on common challenges and best practices for 21st century collaboration. We spoke with funding leaders from over 25 organizations, including foundations, social accelerators, and organizations that advise high net worth individuals and families. While we saw variety in the approaches and experiences of these organizations, all found enormous benefits and challenges to collaborating. It was quickly apparent that collaboration in family focused philanthropy and social impact investing requires special attention. In this article we summarize the four major themes that arose. Three of these themes—Coming Together, Governance, and Assessing Impact—have far-reaching relevance and applicability. One—Weathering Family Transitions—is more specifically pertinent to the nuance and quirks of family-focused philanthropy and social impact, though it has insights that everyone can learn from.

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.


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 occuring 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. Communicating about expectations with the next generation can be useful for families outside of the foundation context.

Assuring Impact

Nearly everyone we spoke with recognized the importance of defining and measuring impact. Most struggle to do that well and none profess to have it figured out. Most importantly, we heard that leaning into that struggle is what yields powerful fuel for collaboration.

Evaluating progress is vital, but it doesn’t have to be an RCT, and sometimes it shouldn’t be.

You might expect more mature, data-driven organizations to have established consistent, replicable frameworks for impact measurement. While undeniable progress in specific program areas where measurement is easier to implement has been made, gold standards simply don’t exist and the costs inherent in answering seemingly simple questions can quickly become prohibitive. Recognizing how challenging this can be, one organization we spoke with has adopted a more organic approach that favors action and scaling over “ivory tower” measurement, like overdependence on randomized controlled trials for proof of effectiveness. Yet, even in this situation there are mechanisms in place to take stock of progress, extract lessons, and ensure that the right kind of support best helps those who actively develop and apply solutions.

Including grassroots perspectives can reveal innovative approaches and strengthen systems-change efforts.

Another important thing we heard was that incorporating the voice of the ‘end-user’ or beneficiary has become a best practice for developing scalable solutions that have lasting impact. A common technique to foster innovation is to bring in diverse perspectives. A handful of organizations we interviewed praise combining these two ideas—bringing grassroot, community voices into blue-sky solution generation—as the secret to developing creative solutions that result in real, lasting change. Engaging with stakeholders in this way can also aid collaboration by re-center the conversation around the central issues, rather than bureaucratic disputes.

Tackling systemic impact measurement can bring more funders
Some organizations use complex models to measure the systemic impact of their work. For one social impact investing firm, they believe that quantifying and measuring systemic impact will better galvanize their investors. Their model captures systemic, environmental, and social impact in a quantitative way. This requires a deep understanding of the issues at hand and ability to add that nuance to their models. In particular, this organization accounts for the differences in impact when investing in seasoned operators vs. those that are emerging. To do this, their impact model has 30 variables factored into the analysis. These variables examine everything from the impact of funding an intermediary, how capital is additional or strengthening the organization, how investing affects the whole sector, or how well the opportunity fits into their Theory of Change.

Weathering Family Transitions

Families have a pre-set group with whom to collaborate, but with that comes other complexities related to family dynamics.

Align on shared family values that are balanced with the flexibility to evolve as new generations engage.

Just as any collaboration requires establishing shared goals, families that intend to work together must have a deep sense of who they are as a family and how individuals are a part of that. Some of this comes from family culture, and some can be built into family culture with guidance and support from skilled advisors. For collaboration that is sustainable, it is critical to help each family member recognize their individual perspective on social impact, and help them find their place in the family and family’s collective social impact work. And, whenever there’s a major transition in the family that affects leadership, it is important for everyone to convene in a structured way to revisit their shared values and renew or adapt them for the future.

New generations must be brought into the family social impact work thoughtfully and intentionally.

New generations introduce challenges, but also opportunities. Engaging younger family members in social impact or philanthropy can build connections across generations, create a giving legacy, and help younger generations develop life skills and gain new perspectives. However, as leadership transitions between generations, it often creates an inflection point.

While working through these differences may be difficult, it is important to find opportunities along the way to empower the younger generation. A younger generation can become disillusioned if it does not share authority, and sits in the shadows of a dominant older generation. Consider giving new members a discretionary pool of giving, a project or initiative to lead, or an event to organize, so they can practice leadership skills and have the chance to advocate for their interests within the larger family.

Cousins are the key to family collaboration, but they must be brought together with purpose.

There are, of course, many benefits to passing the torch successfully. Interviewees who advise families noted that cousins tend to retain familial bonds with each other, while being less at odds with each other than siblings and parent/child relationships. When cousin gatherings are focused and designed well, they can enhance these connections and create the bedrock of healthy collaboration. In some cases, like when families are spread out geographically or members have diverse experiences, these relationships are not preexisting and must be forged.

Navigating rocky transitions poorly leads to negative consequences
In our interviews, we encountered two case studies in which foundations eventually dissolved due to poor transitions. In one, they described the awkwardness that accompanied the younger generation joining. The voting was clearly weighted toward the side of the family with the elders who were already established family leaders, which made it difficult for the younger members to find their voice. Eventually their interest in involvement diminished. In another case, the strong patriarch who created the foundation passed away, leaving the remaining family members asking themselves for the first time what kind of impact they wanted to have. This revealed stark differences between them and ultimately led to the termination of the foundation as well as the breakdown in their personal relationships. These experiences are not unique to family foundations. We heard similar anecdotes about families who rely on DAFs and other forms of giving. Not incorporating other family voices and waiting too long to empower younger generations can have ripple effects that affect the family’s giving, cohesion and, ultimately, legacy.


Working together is certainly nothing new, but the complexities of partnerships and social challenges requires that we take an even more thoughtful approach. These four things: Coming Together, Governance, Assessing Impact, and Weathering Transitions came up in nearly all of our interviews, and for good reason. How the group first gathers and frames the problem they are addressing sets the tone and north star for the remainder of the collaboration. The rules and structure that is established can enable or inhibit the growth and success of the team. How we define the measures of success, while not easy, is necessary to track progress, gain momentum, and bring in more partners. While these three elements are also true for social impact focused families, there are additional considerations they must be mindful of if they are to influence social change in the long term.

Curious? Learn more about us at Intentional Futures.
We are a strategy and design firm working with visionary leaders to solve hard problems that matter.

Questions? Feel free to reach out, we love to chat!

Debi Blizard, Director of Social Impact, Intentional Futures,

Who We Spoke With

This work was informed by conversations with over 30 experts from a wide range of family foundations, impact investors, and philanthropic advisors in the social impact space including:

Sharna Goldseker, Founder & Vice President, 21/64

Jennifer Pryce, President & CEO, Calvert Impact Capital

Vivian Wu, Managing Partner of Ventures, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Pam Foster, Chief Operating Officer, Co-Impact

Ross Jensen, Senior Director of Strategy & Innovation, Emerson Collective

Jennifer Muntz, Executive Director, Family Business Network

Rachel Carlson, Co-Founder and CEO, Guild Education

Jennifer Stout, Deputy Director, Philanthropic Partnerships, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

B.J. Goergen, Global Head, The Philanthropy Centre at JP Morgan Private Bank

Kathleen McLaughlin, President, Walmart Foundation

Fidelity Charitable

Glenmede Trust

Laird Norton Family Foundation

Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy

National Center for Family Philanthropy

Robin Hood Foundation

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

Seismic Philanthropy

The Audacious Project