Funders are increasingly looking to inter-agency and cross-sector collaboration to solve complex, large-scale problems. Getting to large-scale impact requires a coalition to navigate a series of challenging tasks involving relationship-building, aligning around a shared purpose, and developing and sustaining effective strategies.

Many collaborative groups fail to generate tangible impact with their work. Funders are at least partially responsible -- by doing things like pre-specifying the problem to be solved, deciding who needs to be at the table, and/or by limiting the group's ability to adjust its strategy once an implementation grant has been awarded.

On the other hand, some foundations have developed approaches that actually enhance the quality of collaborative problem-solving. The Heath Foundation of Central Massachusetts built a number of impact-promoting design features into its Synergy Initiative, including: allowing community groups to determine what problem they want to solve, supporting groups for at least five years, tailoring resources to the different stages of strategy development and implmentation, ensuring that the group uses a rigorous approach to planning, providing funding for an evaluation consultant, and providing active support to sustain effective programs and change policy. One of the most notable elements of the Synergy Initiative is that representatives of the Foundation (including the CEO) are directly involved in planning, strategy-development, evaluation and advocacy.

This Foundation Review article summarizes systems-change outcomes from 14 collaborative groups supported under the Synergy Initiative since 2000. Interviews with representatives from 4 of the more successful projects point to the key tasks involved in designing, implementing and sustaining impactful programs. Interviewees attested to the value of hte Synergy Initiative approach, but also emphasized that the model requires high levels of commitment and analytic capacity.

One of the most challenging features of the Synergy Initative model is the funder's direct engagement in the process. Given the power dynamics that naturally arise, we recommend that this approach be sued onl in situations where the funder can building strong, honest, give-and-take relationships with the other participants in the process.

Download: This article can be downloaded from the link on the left of this page, or here at The Foundation Review.

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