The Challenges of Partnerships

Partnerships don’t just happen. Particularly within the world of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations, there can be deep-rooted impediments to collaboration.

Foundations, in general, tend to strive for uniqueness in activity, strategy, and emphasis. This focus on uniqueness as a business and branding strategy was reinforced by two influential Harvard Business Review articles in the 1990s that urged foundations to act more like competitive businesses, Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, noted in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

“The fact is, focusing competitively and narrowly on individual institutional performance isn’t necessarily consistent with maximizing impact,” Mr. Buchanan wrote. “It has led many large foundations to develop and put in place their strategies alone. But in philanthropy, unlike in business, that is a recipe for failure.”

In a 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania, MBA, and Mark Kramer, JD, MBA, examined successful efforts to tackle social problems and concluded “that large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.”

Or, as Mr. Buchanan put it: “Big progress against tough challenges requires a lot of effective organizations working together.”

If that’s the case, why is partnership so hard?

The emphasis on uniqueness certainly is one factor and can lead to what some in nonprofit circles call the “not invented here” syndrome. In some cases, getting a foundation or organization to support a project or program developed by another foundation can be a tough sell.

That is not an issue for all foundations. “We’re very happy being part of a crowd,” says Florence A. Davis, president of the Starr Foundation. “We know that we don’t have bottomless resources and if we find something that we’re very interested in, we love to have company. We like to share the stage and the credit. We just want to make sure the people undertaking the project are good leaders and have sound ideas and a good plan for executing the project.”

Another factor is that foundations tend to strongly value independent internal processes, timing, and rules, which can make compromise difficult. Similarly, potential public-private partnerships can be complicated because the federal government is encumbered by reams of rules and regulations regarding how they administer taxpayer money.

Differences in foundation size and resources also can make it harder to partner. Some large foundations with sizeable endowments may feel they have sufficient resources to make the kind of impact they desire on their own.

And while it seems to make sense to pair the resources of a national foundation with a local foundation’s knowledge of a community, there are times when it instead creates a clash of cultures and approaches. For instance, which is more important: local health outcomes or building a national model?

However, the Hartford Foundation remains committed to actively pursuing partnerships of all kinds because the benefits—shared throughout this report—far outweigh the challenges, as significant as they sometimes are. Our decades of experience in working with others to improve the health of older Americans confirm what the Stanford Social Innovation Review article found: “No single organization is responsible for any major social problem, nor can any single organization cure it.”

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