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Foundation Collaboration: Keys to Success

A look at best practices for the foundation community, drawn from the work of Connect US Fund.

As foundations position themselves for engaging the Obama administration in its second term, a unique foundation experiment offers some important best practices. Conceived in 2003, the Connect US Fund was designed to build a stronger network in the foreign policy community to push back against the unilateralism of the Bush Administration. As the Obama administration shifted to a more cooperative global engagement, the value added of the Connect US Fund was less of a priority for our foundation partners, so we decided last year to spin off the sustainable parts of our work and wind the operation down. But the $12.5 million that the foundation community invested in our organization enabled us to convene the foreign policy community, help build a stronger network, and seek policy advances where possible.

Through our collective actions involving hundreds of NGOs, a clearer, more unified voice for responsible multilateral US foreign policy has been heard at the highest levels of the US Government. Our community meetings offered networking opportunities and our trainings helped fill in capacity gaps. High-level targeted advocacy meetings enhanced the community’s policy impact. Our annual grants fostered collaboration; a separate rapid response grantmaking program took advantage of unforeseen advocacy opportunities.

Our experience offers some useful best practices for the foundation community that we hope will benefit the future planning of foundations and civil society members. We have distilled our thoughts into three short white papers, which will remain on our website for two years. What we hope to convey is that, done poorly, collaborative efforts can be a waste of time; done right, they can be a powerful tool to advance the goals of multiple foundations and partnering NGOs. Following is an overview.

The most important element to any effort is the provision of adequate staff time—both in the donor community and in terms of the staff of the collaborative. In our experience, few organizations provide adequate staff to collaborative efforts; they often fail to prepare and maintain staff sufficiently, to the organizations’ detriment and eventual demise.

Our first paper argues that, for donor collaborative offers to be successful, organizations need staff to operate in a constant learning mode, sharing best practices and constantly striving to define impact. Equal playing fields among foundations, institutionalizing the collaborative at senior levels, and ensuring independent funding are all key ingredients to an effective donor collaborative. Regular outside evaluations are important to ensure identified goals, as is a willingness to define exit conditions.

Our second paper outlines our unique Rapid Response grantmaking program and strongly urges the foundation community to find a way to continue it. A fast, flexible funding mechanism is essential to advancing discrete policy wins in an ever-shifting political environment. Our program provided small grants in less than 30 days (and oftentimes within a week) that enable organizations to respond to and act on unique, time-bound, and unforeseen opportunities. For instance, we were able to respond quickly to rapidly changing events in the Arab Spring. One project we funded brought Tunisian civil society leaders to the US to brief policy-makers on the transition to democracy. A month later, this helped trigger approval of eligibility for grants from Millennium Challenge Corporation. Since then, the Tunisian government has received roughly $190 million in foreign aid from the United States, much of it to improve Tunisia’s financial sector.

A less successful project we funded was aimed at abolishing the UNESCO-Obiang Prize. The government-funded prize is named after Equatorial Guinea’s President Obiang, a well-documented human rights abuser and corrupt leader. In the run-up to the UNESCO meeting, our grantee performed extraordinarily well, generating media hits, publishing op-eds, and securing partners to speak out and lobby against the award. Unfortunately, because of last-minute manuvering by the government of Equatorial Guinea, the UNESCO Executive Board ultimately voted to allow the award to continue under a different name. In the end, a quick infusion of funds cannot always overcome entrenched policy obstacles.

Our experience shows that a good rapid response program requires dedicated staff, simple application and reporting requirements, and separate evaluation processes and metrics that allow for both successes and failures.

Lastly, we offer recommendations for successful collaboration techniques, with an emphasis on dedicated staff time and the presence of a “neutral convener” who is strongly invested in the success of the group. Conveners should feel confident asking the tough questions and setting the structures in place to position the group for long-term success so that they can name and meet challenges as they arise, and engage in self-criticism. Collaborative groups must constantly review their purpose and be prepared to close up shop when the time is right. When done well, collaboration can be a catalytic tool that can break boundaries and ignite profound change.

Our most successful collaborative effort was the Fissile Materials Working Group, an international coalition of over 70 nuclear security organizations and experts providing actionable policy recommendations to the US and foreign governments, and Congress. Now an independent organization, this coalition has become a forceful presence in support of improved fissile material security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism.

A less successful example of collaboration has been our efforts to convene a group of high-level experts to provide input to the White House’s Atrocities Prevention Board. The group has not had the impact we had hoped, partially because of the legal obstacles to providing direct input to government entities and partially because of the difficulties in determining what kind of outside advice would be most helpful in addition to that already being provided by others.

Our experience at the Connect US Fund was very rewarding, and we hope these best practices are of use to the community. All of us at the Connect US Fund have been proud and honored to be a part of this donor collaborative. We have been privileged to work with many incredible foundation leaders dedicated to building a better world. We hope you all will continue to help build a stronger community.

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