It’s time to change how philanthropies collaborate

October 8, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC
“Our agendas and ideologies won’t always align, but our goals still can,” writes Caryl M. Stern of the Walton Family Foundation.
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In philanthropy, we are wired to solve problems through collaboration because it embodies the spirit and style of how we work. We accept and embrace the fact that the immensity of the challenges we tackle goes beyond what any of us can do alone in dollars or deeds. So, to get results, we share tasks, people, ideas, learnings, money, and credit. 

We like it. We’re proud of it. And now it’s time to admit we need to think about it differently.

Collaboration, it seems, has quietly and mistakenly become synonymous with teaming up only with those with whom we have complete common ground. In fact, collaboration should instead be the hunt for what my good friend Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics International board of directors, calls common solutions. 

The distinction in that difference can be profound. 

Common ground puts a disproportionate focus on whether we work with partners who share our entire ideology and highest priorities. Decisions are made through the prism of us and them. 

Common solutions, in contrast, focus on the collective goal of solving big, complex problems and creating lasting change. And in the course of finding those solutions, collaboration may entail working with or giving money to organizations that align with us on some endeavors but not at all on others.

It would be easier on all of us if the lines were clear—if the funders, grantees, governments, and businesses that collaborate shared an overarching ideology and agenda. For this, against that. That would preclude the need to ever have to explain or defend why you work with an organization on one issue but would never want to be linked with them on another. 

Except our work isn’t easy. It’s messy. Agendas overlap. Decisions demand nuance. Society is so divided it’s now hard to have a conversation on facts—let alone a debate on ideas. If the problems don’t fall into neat little lanes, we should not expect the collaborations to either. 

This is not a philosophy I’m espousing from high above the conversation. To the contrary, the organization I have the privilege to lead, the Walton Family Foundation, lives deep inside this complex reality.

We currently award hundreds of millions of dollars each year to thousands of grantees. They have extraordinarily diverse backgrounds and agendas—individually, let alone collectively. Our financial support is not a blanket endorsement. We are not grading them on how well they match up with us on every core issue, and we are transparent about that. 

Rather, we grant them money for discrete projects and specific outcomes for which we hold them accountable. We collaborate with them because they not only advance the causes we support, but they also share our belief in giving people and communities access to opportunity, rooted in the foundation’s vision that everyone can thrive if given a chance. 

If we only worked with those who shared our beliefs on every issue, we would be leaving ideas and talent on the table. The people we serve cannot afford for us to make decisions that way.

The call to action, then, is to redefine collaboration as working with and across a broad spectrum of organizations—and together, going after the common solutions by leveraging complementary strengths and honoring a diversity of viewpoints.

Of course, hold true to the bright lines your beliefs dictate you cannot cross. But be sure that in your search for common solutions, you lift the frame of the conversation.

I did this from 2007 to 2019 as president and CEO of Unicef USA, an organization that supports lifesaving work for children. Its mission opened up all kinds of potential for division on how we worked and with whom. I repeatedly said the only side I’m on is the side of the child—period.  

And now, at the Walton Family Foundation, our priorities underline my point as well.

We strive to make the world better in three specific areas: improving K–12 education through community-driven change; protecting rivers and oceans; and investing in our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. We would never expect our partners to align with us on every part of that unique agenda. But we always expect to do measurable, meaningful work together. 

We hold ourselves accountable and know we need to be better at collaborating ourselves. With an enduring commitment, we strive to engage communities more and ensure the work reflects their voices and needs; prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do; and multiply and accelerate grantees’ impact by finding new and different collaboration partners.

For the entire field, the need for this recalibration of collaboration is timely in two ways. 

People are looking to philanthropy and the organizations we support to help solve some of the complex problems governments and other institutions have not or cannot. They want us to be bold, agile and adaptable. Public optimism in our work remains high. According to a recent study by the Independent Sector, 84% of Americans said they were confident in the ability of nonprofits to strengthen our nation’s society. We should use our trusted reputation as a force to bring people together—again, that’s who we are. That’s our extraordinary power. And we have the responsibility to use it. 

What’s more, as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, people are seeing the world differently. The pandemic has prompted important conversations about how we talk to and treat one another. In short, people are searching for people who can unite and solve.

So let’s deliver. 

Let’s find solutions, act on them, measure results, and keep going.

As for the sensitive philosophical and political issues that divide us? They are not going anywhere. Fortunately, neither are we. The people we serve need us to be who we are, together: bold, creative collaborators who stay focused on the goals that unite us. 

Caryl M. Stern is executive director of the Walton Family Foundation.

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