Collaboration is fundamental to what Surdna is as a grant making foundation. Our mission prioritizes collaboration across our issues, and we look for our staff to be highly collaborative, both internally and externally. Sharon Alpert, Vice President, Programs and Strategic Initiatives, discusses collaboration, its benefits and challenges, and how it helps to increase our impact.
How did Surdna equip itself to collaborate?
When Surdna’s board refined our mission, it also named three areas of focus and prioritized the interdependent relationships among them as critical to the foundation’s vision of a sustainable community. Our three programs—Sustainable Environments, Strong Local Economies, and Thriving Cultures—have different strategies, but we aim to take a holistic view where we share a common understanding of the challenges and speak one another’s language. We believe there is real power in cross-program collaboration, internally and externally, and that fulfilling our mission requires transcending the boundaries of individual program priorities and bringing together our fields. It’s the “whole elephant” philosophy, if you recall the parable of the blind men touching different parts of the elephant.
Our staff and board also recognized that creating a collaborative culture takes time, high levels of trust, and a willingness to be flexible and take risks. Our board encourages the kind of time-intensive relationship building that is necessary to lay the groundwork for partnerships. It’s so valued, in fact, that the board approved adding staff capacity across the programs and in communications to support it. The board understands that there will be bumps in the road and finds enormous value in learning from them. Collaboration is really part of our DNA—in how we work, whom we hire, what our grantees and partners expect from us, and what we hold ourselves accountable to.
What are some of the challenges of collaboration?
Collaboration is not easy. There’s more work involved, and often it requires additional organizational capacity over and above what’s needed to implement programs in isolation. Also, you need a particular set of skills to do it effectively. It requires trust, a bit of faith, and a willingness to adapt. When we enter an internal or external collaboration, we often need to be flexible about our strategies and the outcomes we are striving for. As one of our staff recently noted, “If you enter the collaborative space solving for what you already know, you’re not pushing yourself.”
It’s also critically important to spend a lot of time building the base for collaboration and figuring out what kinds of systems can support the process—but without creating so much process that you stifle creativity and responsiveness. For example, early on we figured out that we were doing twice as much administrative work on the back end of grants, which was slowing down grant making. We also learned that grantees really valued having multiple staff perspectives to support their work, but that it can also be confusing if there are too many cooks in the kitchen. So we made some simple system fixes to our due diligence and approval processes and also created clarity in communications with grantees.
What drives Surdna to collaborate with other funders? Does it help make us better grant makers?
The enormity and complexity of the issues we care about far outweigh our assets. But they don’t outweigh our ambitions. We’re not content to nibble around the edges of massive challenges like overhauling our country’s outdated and crumbling infrastructure or redefining what it means to have a good job in America. We’re not the only ones looking for solutions to these problems; we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought we were. Working collaboratively with other funders gives us access to the best thinking from multiple perspectives and to networks and resources beyond our own. And again, our board members get this. They understand that Surdna is part of an ecosystem of funders, and they want to know where we fit.
The best collaborations can bring together unusual partners, which can help funders, grantees, policymakers and community leaders reframe how they work on issues, create new champions, and ultimately deepen impact in the field. Given Surdna’s limited resources, working collaboratively has allowed us to pool our dollars, leverage partners, and incentivize others, which ultimately grows the pot and helps us scale up the transformative work being done by our grantees. Partners for Places, a matching fund of national and place-based funders working together to support local sustainability initiatives in cities across the country, is a great example of this. And from the grantee perspective, it’s a huge win when they can talk to multiple funders together and not say the same thing over and over again! It sounds pretty obvious, but these things really do make us better grant makers, and you’d be surprised how seldom it happens.
How has collaboration increased our impact?
Surdna has had a long history of being the kind of partner that excels at connecting the dots across issue areas. It has become a point of pride for us, but it’s also really grounded in the impact we have seen it have in the field. For example, our Sustainable Environments and Strong Local Economies teams came together to support LAANE [Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy] in developing a campaign to demonstrate the enormous potential to create good jobs in the manufacturing sector by tapping into the massive amounts of dollars we spend to build infrastructure, particularly transit systems.
We have a deep knowledge of the transportation policy arena, which helped LAANE make important connections at the federal level. Also, we are sharing our know-how of successful local and regional economic development policies to help LAANE push for more equitable outcomes. Madeline Janis, LAANE’s co-founder, tells us that Surdna’s willingness to be “all in” is exemplified not just with the active participation of two of our programs, but also with our grants management team and the president’s office. In 2012, when LAANE was targeted for a smear campaign, Phil Henderson, our president, together with our grants management office, worked with LAANE on a response strategy. We partnered with the Ford Foundation and LAANE to convene a briefing at Philanthropy New York to discuss the rise of political attacks on advocacy work and how foundations can respond.