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In Collaboration, the Means Matter

How we collaborate matters greatly. A few years ago, I supported a national foundation in bringing together a group of state-based funders to address educational inequities in their state. Though the goal was clear, the national foundation’s intentions and agenda were not as transparent. After a few intimate convenings, one brave regional funder asked the …

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

How we collaborate matters greatly. A few years ago, I supported a national foundation in bringing together a group of state-based funders to address educational inequities in their state. Though the goal was clear, the national foundation’s intentions and agenda were not as transparent. After a few intimate convenings, one brave regional funder asked the national foundation the question many had been wondering: “Why did you bring us together?” The best collaboration frameworks, decision-making processes, working group structures, communication protocols and other tactical elements would be ineffective if the group did not first address power dynamics and receive upfront transparency from the convening foundation.

As that experience demonstrates, collaborating isn’t enough; it is critical that we are intentional about how we do so. Though many grantmakers recognize the importance of collaboration, more emphasis should be put on the underlying values that guide collaboration. Today, we are thrilled to release a co-created statement of seven ethical principles to collaboration in the philanthropic sector. The very collaboration that led to this statement is unique: the partners with whom we co-created this statement—organizations supporting nonprofit and philanthropic collaborations—are often seen as our competitors. This group recognizes that given our common goal of making the world a better place, particularly now as divisiveness deepens across the country, we need to challenge ourselves to work through uncomfortable dynamics and model the collaborative behaviors we value.

These principles aim to offer philosophical guidance that builds on the many existing resources offering tactical guidance to collaboration, including resources on collaborating for greater impact, building blocks of collaboration, and many others. As our partners and we know well, if we truly seek transformational change, we must collaborate and do so with intentionality.

A Statement of Values to Guide Philanthropic Collaboration

A Letter to Grantmakers from Practitioners

Individual organizations seeking to address complex social issues cannot achieve their missions on their own. They must combine resources and knowledge with others to make progress. This feels especially acute for many nonprofits and grantmakers now, as many in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are considering the role they can play in addressing systems change and as these actors face a shifting and uncertain environment in the months and years ahead.

As interest in collaboration within the philanthropic sector has increased, so has the range of models, how-to guides, case studies, and debates on best practices. There is a strong desire in the sector to ensure that collaboration is done thoughtfully, respectfully, and effectively, yet the abundance of terms, tools and frameworks can be overwhelming and confusing to grantmakers and their partners.

For the past two years, a number of the leading organizations supporting and facilitating nonprofit and philanthropic collaborations have been coming together to share our experiences and perspectives. Called the Collaboration Champions, this group has collectively published dozens of papers on the topic and worked with hundreds of different collaborations. We are the creators of a variety of the terms, tools and frameworks on collaboration in the field.

Through our work together, we’ve realized that there are some ethical principles, or values, we all hold in common in our approach to building and supporting successful collaborations. We articulate those principles here in hopes of sparking further conversations on values related to social sector collaboration and offering guidance on how grantmakers and nonprofits might think about approaching their own collaborative work with other foundations, nonprofits, government, private entities or some combination. These values are grounded in experience, and admittedly reflect a viewpoint of what it means to collaborate ethically in the philanthropic sector. They are designed to be applicable to philanthropic-sponsored collaborations broadly. We focused on underlying values to guide collaboration rather than attempting to offer a synopsis or synthesis of best practices, with the understanding that others have tackled (and will continue to learn) about the practices of effective collaborations.

Seven Ethical Principles to Collaboration in the Philanthropic Sector:

  1. Each collaboration should aim to achieve a clear social good. Collaboration is not self-justifying.
  2. How we collaborate is as important as the goals we seek to accomplish. While it is important to have a goal, considerate and values-driven process matters in collaboration. The ends do not justify the means.
  3. The social currency, trust and relationships that evolve as part of a collaboration are just as important as — and play a critical role in contributing to — the programmatic outcomes a collaboration seeks to achieve.
  4. Collaborations should seek to elevate voices from the affected individuals/communities and provide space for their leadership.
  5. Participants in collaborations should acknowledge power differentials and prioritize an active approach to dealing with them.
  6. Collaboration carries explicit and implicit costs. The principle of equity should guide resource allocations, including, where appropriate, compensating for participation.
  7. Reflection and learning are deliberate acts to ensure that a collaborative is living its values and best serving the membership, the community, and the stated goal.

We hope these principles will be helpful in a range of ways, from checking for values alignment with potential partners to providing considerations for the design of a collaboration. We ask grantmakers to consider these principles as a guide to how they approach collaboration, and we invite other practitioners in collaboration to sign on with us to help ensure that value-driven collaboration is not subordinated to, but is held jointly with, outcomes-driven collaboration.


Arabella Advisors
The Bridgespan Group
Collective Impact Forum
Community Wealth Partners
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
Management Assistance Group (MAG)
TCC Group
Anonymous Contributors


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