Grantee partnerships: adding depth to your grantmaking

Grantmakers who form true partnerships with grantees can address complex social problems - problems that take a long time to solve and require innovation. They can also bring more robust risk management to the projects they fund.

What is a partnership?

Partnerships with grantees can mean simply more equal relationships between grantmaker and grantee, or they can involve cooperative relationships between the grantmaker and more than one grantee. 

What does risk management have to do with it?

A strong, respectful partnership enables projects (and the conditions attached to projects) to be:

  • developed collaboratively by grantmaker and grantee, ensuring mutual buy-in
  • negotiated upfront
  • designed to help all parties manage their risks 
  • rigorous, so conditions are meaningful

Both parties need to understand and confirm the terms and limits of grant support, but being clear about all of this at the beginning of a relationship can help to avoid a traumatic ending.

Encouraging (and participating in) collaboration

As a grantmaker, you might encourage grantseekers to submit applications in collaboration with other community groups, or you might spell out a requirement for collaboration in a grant's terms of reference. You might find that a coalition of community groups working in the same area comes to you seeking support for a collaboration.

You might even decide to work together with other grantmakers to get a complex project off the ground and see it through to its conclusion. 

Managing partnerships

Complex partnerships come with a variety of potential probFSG lems. Detailed planning will be required to establish how tasks and rewards will be divided. 

FSG (Foundation Strategy Group) managing directors John Kania and Mark Kramer reviewed highly successful collaborations and identified five characteristics they all shared:

  • common agenda: a common understanding of a problem and a joint approach to solving it
  • shared measurement systems: consistent collection of data and agreement on the way success will be measured and reported
  • mutually reinforcing activities: each participant must undertake specific activities in its area of expertise, activities that support and are coordinated with the actions of others
  • continuous communication: consistent and open communication between partners is needed to build trust, assure mutual objectives and create common motivation
  • backbone support: coordination and management must be provided by an organisation separate from the participants; it requires dedicated staff with a very specific set of skills. 

Other elements that have been found to contribute to successful partnerships include:

  • having a co-developed, aspirational and measurable goal
  • all group members having a strong sense of ownership
  • all group members knowing their role
  • having the same individuals at the table (continuity)
  • members being focused on the issues and not on their own institutional agenda.

The more complex a partnership, the more challenges it throws down. Here are some more ideas to help you manage them:

  • Be patient. It can take months of meetings to agree on an agenda or vision.
  • It takes time to build trust and understanding, too.
  • For some partners, understanding background, policy and administrative details is challenging. Have a subject matter expert on hand to help.
  • Finding a focus in the face of a complex problem can be a big challenge: try conducting a group workshop to define a statement of problem and an aspirational goal. 

Collaborative community development

The US-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation works to address "the most serious social and environmental problems facing society" and defines community development as "asset building that improves the quality of life among residents of low- to moderate-income neighbourhood communities."

The foundation's publication Community Development: A Guide for Grantmakers on Fostering Better Outcomes through Good Process is a guide to collaboration. It says good community development anticipates conflict and seeks to bring it to the surface and discuss it in ways that acknowledge differences and improve understanding. It also says that good community development fosters collaborative conversations that become more strategic, holistic and systemic over time.

One of the report's major themes is the need to move away from "myopic, task-focussed conversations" to "enriched, big-picture conversations" that draw upon the full range of experience of all participants. The report calls for grantmakers to:

  1. do more research up front, before getting too far into a project.
  2. hand out grants for planning stages.
  3. help grantees and their partners do a self-assessment.
  4. fund process-oriented technical assistance (this might mean funding experts, training or meetings).
  5. do work that no-one else does.