Posted Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at 7:35 pm

Findings from a national study

The five conditions for collective impact offer guidance not only for collective impact initiatives but for other forms of collaboration as well. In an effort to see more effective collaborations happening among grantmakers and grantees and across communities, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations advocates for changes in grantmaking practice that better support collaboration. Our hope is that more grantmakers will adopt practices conducive to collaboration, and many of the practices GEO advocates are aligned with the five conditions of collective impact — common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and strong backbone.

Every three years, GEO conducts a national survey of staffed foundations to track progress on practices that both grantmakers and nonprofits agree are critical to achieving better results. We have a keen interest in understanding the extent to which grantmakers embrace the attitudes and practices we know are essential for collaboration because without the right kind of support collaborations won’t have the resources they need to survive and thrive.

The data from GEO’s 2014 field study show more grantmakers are adopting practices that are aligned with some of the conditions for collective impact, but in a couple of areas the data suggest more progress is needed.

1. Common Agenda — coming together to collectively define the problem and shape the solution

Let’s face it, foundations don’t typically have a reputation for being open and collaborative when it comes to setting strategy. Adopting a common agenda in partnership with a cross-sector range of organizations would be a radical shift for many foundations. The good news is an increasing number of grantmakers recognize the need for grantee input to inform policies, practices, program areas and strategy. In fact, the majority of funders seek input and advice from grantees, and, as the table below shows, this number has grown significantly in the past three years. This movement is a step in the right direction toward more grantmakers being comfortable with co-creating a common agenda.

2. Shared Measurement agreeing to track progress in the same way, which allows for continuous improvement.

Grantmakers and nonprofits alike want to know if our work is making a difference and how we can improve our work over time. Three-quarters of grantmakers in our survey evaluate their work, an all-time high since our survey began 10 years ago. However, the data suggest that grantmakers for the most part are not using evaluation in a way that is conducive to the shared learning and continuous improvement that is critical for effective collaboration.

From these findings, it is clear that grantmakers are using data primarily for internal purposes, such as informing internal strategy and communicating with the board. Less than half of grantmakers are sharing what they’re learning with others, such as grantees, community members or policymakers. Not only does keeping this data for internal eyes only present a missed opportunity for learning and improvement outside the walls of the foundation, it also suggests the field still has significant work to do to get the majority of foundations to buy into shared measurement.

3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities coordinating collective efforts to maximize the end result.

Grantmakers recognize that far greater impact is achieved by working with others rather than alone. Eighty percent of survey respondents said it was important to coordinate resources with other grantmakers working on similar issues, a practice which can support aligning funding to support a collaborative’s common agenda. And better yet, most of these grantmakers are walking the talk. The majority (69 percent) developed a strategic relationship with other funders in the past two years, with the primary reason for doing so being to achieve greater impact (99 percent).

4. Continuous Communications building trust and relationships among all participants

Recognizing that Money = power, the onus is on grantmakers to work proactively to build trusting, open relationships with grantees and other stakeholders. Results from GEO’s survey show that funders are increasingly seeking feedback (anonymous or nonanonymous) from grantees — 53 percent report doing so in 2014, up from 44 percent in 2011. This, plus the growth in grantmakers seeking input mentioned above, suggest that more grantmakers are taking deliberate steps to build strong relationships with grantees.

However, data from GEO’s field survey and a Nonprofit Finance Fund study suggest a gap in perception between nonprofits and grantmakers about how open grantmakers really are. Nonprofit Finance Fund, in a recent survey, asked nonprofits if the majority of their funders were willing to engage in open dialogue on a range of key financial issues. In GEO’s survey, we asked grantmakers if they were open to discuss the same issues with their grantees. As the table below shows, we found a sizeable gap between nonprofits’ perception of openness and how open grantmakers say they are.

These findings raise the question: Are grantmakers overly confident about how well they build trust and relationships with grantees and other stakeholders? One way to test this is to solicit anonymous feedback from grantees; our survey found that only about one-third (34 percent) of grantmakers currently do so.

5. Strong Backbone having a team dedicated to orchestrating the work of the group.

Collective impact initiatives have a dedicated backbone, and all forms of collaboration require some level of infrastructure and coordination. These things cost money. A key way grantmakers can support collaboration among nonprofits is by supporting this backbone or infrastructure.

GEO’s survey findings present somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to grantmaker support for a strong backbone. Unfortunately, the majority of grantmakers (53 percent) say they rarely or never support the costs of collaboration.

Grantmakers could benefit from more education and advocacy about the importance of supporting the costs of collaboration. On the brighter side, among those grantmakers that do support collaboration, 72 percent say they fund the infrastructure or operational costs of collaboration.

How Are We Doing?

So how well do grantmaking practices align with the conditions of collective impact? For the most part, GEO’s survey shows that grantmakers have made significant progress over the years in practices that are aligned with a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communications. However, there is still room for improvement. The field needs more funding for the backbone and infrastructure required to keep collaborations running. Grantmakers conducting evaluations primarily for internal audiences are missing a great opportunity for field-building learning and improvement. And while grantmakers by and large are making efforts to build strong and trusting relationships with their grantees, grantmakers and nonprofits seem to have mixed perceptions about how well those efforts are working.

Grantmakers are often key catalysts of collective impact efforts, so it is important to see alignment between grantmaker practices and the conditions of success. While GEO’s study shows areas of progress worth celebrating, the data also highlight a need for further education and advocacy for ways grantmakers can both be more collaborative — such as in buying into a common agenda and shared measurement or building trusting relationships with grantees and stakeholders — and better support collaboration by funding the costs of a backbone or infrastructure. Our hope is that as organizations like GEO, Collective Impact Forum, and others continue to reinforce the importance of these practices, we will see further progress from grantmakers in our next field study in 2017.

Question for Forum members: How does your experience compare with our findings above? Please share with us your thoughts in the comments.

To read more about GEO’s 2014 study, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?, click here.



Edwin Ferran

technical assistance provider / consultant

While the survey reveals that grantmakers are making some headway in aligning practices with the collective impact conditions for success, in my experience, these well-meaning efforts are most often doomed to fail to reach their ultimate desired outcomes because of 3 factors:

1. More often than not, grantmakers are not willing to 'stay the course' for the length of time required for collective impact intiatives to achieve the long term goals.  Complex issues and problems requiring strategic collaboration are not corrected in a 3- or 5 year span.  More likely they would need 10 or more years to bear full fruit, and there are few funders with that staying power;

2: Grantmakers still under-resource the behind the scenes and structural components that make up an organization's capacity and strength.  Time for adequate reflective practice, professional development, even evaluation [to include data collection, input, management, and analysis] are often short-changed in budgets, stretching good people in good organizations too thin.

3. Collaboration among grantmakers is a promise yet unfufilled. By 'collaboration' I mean in the full spirit and intent of the Collective Impact conditions of succes, i.e., several grantmakers sitting down together, establishing a clear Common Agenda, informed by Shared Measurement driving their Mutually Reinforcing Activities with Constant Communication and beholden to the corralling effect of an objective Backbone Support entity or function.  Increasing grantees' budgets by throwing money in a common pot fails to meet these conditions. 

Submitted by Edwin Ferran on Wed, 2015-01-21 13:41

Daniel Bassill

technical assistance provider / consultant

I've been in an intermediary role for nearly 20 years, attempting to build a network of support for volunteer based tutor/mentor programs operating in different parts of Chicago. I started this based on my own struggles as the leader of a single program, recognizing that with no master database of programs in the city no leader could build marketing strategies that would help every existing program get the resources to constantly improve, while helping new programs grow in underserved areas. I did not have backing of a major foundation, just the support of six other volunteers. Thus, the work of collecting information, brining people together, encouraging idea sharing, etc. that is described in this four part strategy map, has been challenging, to say the least.

I've followed the collective impact articles on SSIR for more than 2 years and have included them in my own blog articles, such as this one. More than a few have pointed out how messy and difficult it is to build coalitions and focus attention on complex, deeply rooted problems. Many, like this article have shown how grant makers demand impact reports but fail to provide enough dollars to do information gathering, analysis and brainstorming needed for process improvement, let alone impact measurement.

While I've created a database listing more than 200 youth serving organizations in Chicago, who each need a consistent flow of flexible, unrestricted operating dollars to do constantly improving work, I've also created a map showing other intermediaries who focus on the well-being of youth.

If you visit the web sites of each of the youth orgs in my directory, or each of the intermediaries, you'll find very few who are pointing to the challenges they face in attracting and retaining an on-going flow of dollars needed to build strong organizations, or strong networks of organizations.  I think that until more take that role we'll be doing too little to educate donors, policy makers, business leaders and others to be more consistent and proactive in helping us do the work they profess in their own publications and mission statements to want done.


Submitted by Daniel Bassill on Wed, 2015-01-21 14:31

Lori Bartczak

partner organization

Thanks, Daniel and Edwin, for your comments. Edwin, I think the three cautions you lay out are right on. The data from GEO's field survey suggests steps in the right direction, but in order for effective collaborations to survive and thrive, grantmakers will absolutely need to provide more long-term support and more funding for capacity. Last year I wrote a piece for Collective Impact Forum in SSIR that captures these sentiments from nonprofit leaders as well as examples of how some grantmakers are providing this type of support. Hopefully our next field study will show grantmakers taking even larger strides. 

Submitted by Lori Bartczak on Wed, 2015-01-21 14:49

Nina van Toulon

backbone organization

Dear Lori, Thanks very much for sharing this info.

I would like to share my experiences regarding Collective Impact and the challenges to find funding. I would be grateful if other forum members could share their thoughts about this. It is a bit of a long story, need to explain how Eco Flores Foundation evolved. This is our website:

I am 50% partner in a trading company which we founded 22 years ago. In 2010 I went to Flores Indonesia because I wanted to contribute to sustainable development. By chance I ended up on Flores, east Indonesian island with 1.8 million inhabitants, 350 km long island and one of the 3 lesser developed regions in Indonesia. Flores is located in the Coral Triangle and near the Wallace Line, a precious and delicate ecosystem. It has ben marked as the new hotspot for tourism in Indonesia and the island is to be developed on 2 pillars: Agriculture and Tourism.     At my first visit in 2010 I started volunteering for a local waste management initiative, started doing what they asked me to do: PR, build their website, build their network, find funding. I did not know the first thing about the island, culture so I started to collect info on Google, via LinkedIn, Facebook. I found out that there are countless local,- national and international NGO, local governments, companies, churchleaders, universities working on Flores or supporting Flores from elsewhere. I also found out that hardly any of them collaborated, shared expertise and I noticed that the impact of their efforts could be higher. It took me a year to find all these contacts, call or mail them or meet in person and I thought it would be a waste to leave it in my laptop, so once this contact list in Excel had grown to over 250 names and organisations I decided to open a website with the purpose to create transparancy. This open source of information did not directly help initiation of actual collaborations though, so I decided to organise a conference on Flores. By that time a number of people had actively joined this initiative and in September 2012 the first Eco Flores Conference took place in Labuan Bajo. 150 stakeholders joined from Flores, elsewhere in Indonesia and 12 other countries. Goal of this conference: Define sustainability issues on Flores at present and in the foreseeable future / Identify local and international initiatives working for the sustainability of Flores / Identify needs and gaps / Define strategy and actionplans. We managed to get the event partially funded by the New Zealand government and WWF. What we were short I paid from my personal savings. On this link you can see the report:

Now after 4 years of countless meetings, email communications, workshops and 3 conferences the results are there, local organisations collaborate, we are being recognised as a hub to get connected to others, I receive endless requests for connections, introductions, volunteer placements, contacts for researchers. The communications and collaborations are related to a Agriculture, Tourism, Education, Health, Environment and Waste Management, Cultural Heritage and all related issues.

To involve as many stakeholders as possible, to promote co-ownership and to ensure we are open for anyone to contribute we share info on a daily basis about communications, about collaborations which have been established, about new contacts. We share on various FB forums and in newsletters. In all we do we underline the need for continous sharing, for synchronising agendas, for the forming of a common agenda, for contributing in working groups at the conferences, for sharing results by researchers and so on.

I know that this is a continous proces, the issues on Flores are very challeging due to many factors. Every day new things pop up which require a flexible and creative response. From our side we raise issues which have not been addressed before and which we think are crusial for sustainability. The long term goals have been defined and there are many ways to get there. New opportunities emerge all the time, situations change, stakeholders situations change, new stakeholders step in, it is a non-stop adapting to new situations.

Personally I am 100% committed. What started as a volunteer job for a local initiative has grown into an established organisation. When I started I did not forsee nor expected this.      And also I am now in despair: working for Eco Flores turned into a full-time job and we have zero funding. I made the choice to close my company in the Netherlands since I cannot combine that with Eco Flores. I am working without structural support, covering expenses myself. A number of volunteers are involved, many from Flores, they need at least their expenses covered. Working without funding is very frustrating and limiting. I cannot work without salary since I need to pay my bills. and we cannot work in an optimal way, with funding we can accomplish much more.

We have knocked on many doors, companies, banks, crowdfunding, appeals on FB and LinkedIn and always the same answer: we do not fund conferences, workshops, overhead.

It is like the chicken and the egg: For collaboration you need to meet. Meetings and organising meetings needs funding. How can you get organisations together without funding ? How do people collaborate if you cannot bring them together ? 

I would be very grateful if forum members can advice. We simply cannot give up, we cannot stop with Eco Flores. 

Many thanks for your attention. Kind regards, Nina van Toulon


Submitted by Nina van Toulon on Wed, 2015-01-28 14:35