Many funders say they have found it challenging to collaborate with other funders in deep, ongoing efforts. Those who seek to collaborate lament the hurdles they need to overcome: each foundation is so independent, singularly focused on its own goals and strategies, and unwilling to be flexible, even when it might mean a better chance of addressing daunting problems. Indeed, our own president has spoken about his experience of trying to foster greater collaboration. For funders who overcome these barriers, it can be a laborious process to get everyone on the same page to work together—time-consuming groundwork, waiting for various funder decision timelines to align, and so forth. But there is real power in successful collaboration, and there are examples where it has worked well. So when Fay Twersky and I began to explore a collective funding effort last year, we held these cautions in our minds yet were determined to overcome them.
Last month, seven funders officially launched Fund for Shared Insight—a collaborative effort to help strengthen and improve philanthropy focused on increasing foundation openness in service of effectiveness. This group of seven includes the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Ford Foundation, JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. We hope that other funders will join the effort, too. Shared Insight plans to make grants of approximately $5 million each year for the next three years. In this first year, we put out an open call for proposals in three categories and received nearly 200 proposals that are currently being reviewed. We will announce grant decisions in November.
What do we mean by “increasing openness in service of effectiveness?” We seek to change the culture of sharing and listening among foundations. We want foundations to be more open about what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what they are learning along the way. We are not just asking them to “be transparent,” a request that could mean “share everything,” but rather to be open about aspects of their work that could help others better achieve their own goals. And in order for that to happen, foundations have to listen to what others have to share, too—including the people our funding is ultimately meant to help. We believe that with this type of increased openness, philanthropy will be more effective. Further, we don’t just want one foundation to change, or five, or ten—we want the entire culture of openness to evolve so that these practices are rewarded and new norms and habits take root. We recognize that foundations are both the targets and the agents of change and that if anyone can help catalyze such a shift, it is foundations ourselves.
While it’s still early days, Shared Insight has been highly productive as a collaborative. Together, we co-created a strategy that balanced taking the time to gather everyone’s input with a sense of urgency and a desire to get to work. We’ve moved together from concept to making grants in less than ten months. And even as we’ve prioritized urgency and made decisions relatively quickly, the materials at Fund for Shared Insight, as well as the thought and research that went into them, are rigorous, thoughtful, and responsive to feedback we’ve collected along the way (though of course they are not perfect!).
Excellent planning and project management have been critical to what we’ve accomplished so far. Melinda Tuan does a remarkable job as project manager for Shared Insight. Having this ongoing “backbone” support has been essential—none of the partnering foundation representatives has the bandwidth to manage Shared Insight with the daily attention to detail that it requires.
While planning and strategy have been to central to our success in launching Shared Insight, there is another core element of funder collaboration that may seem at odds with rigor—the serendipity of how it comes together and operates over time when you don’t know for sure what will happen. Someone told me once that serendipity occurs when preparation meets opportunity, and it’s an equation I love (and try to live by) because you can actually “plan” for serendipity. You can be prepared (at every step of a process or collaboration) and you can choose to embrace opportunity at almost every turn. Funders did just that when they agreed to join this group based on only a strawman strategic framework, and have embraced it at every decision point along the way, from co-creating our strategy, to determining the RFP process, to selecting grant recipients. Rather than view unknowns as a negative thing or something we can’t control, the members of this collaborative have embraced the opportunity to hold the space of “not knowing” and make choices together.
The fact that each of the seven Shared Insight funders has made room for serendipity has been a kind of “secret sauce” that has enabled us to overcome many of the hurdles that keep funder collaboration from being more common. I’m grateful to our colleagues for the spirit with which they’ve approached this work, and excited for the serendipity that we’ll encounter on the path ahead.