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Surdna’s Sharon Alpert Reflects on What’s Needed Inside the Foundation to Collaborate Outside  

Collaboration was the unifying theme at the Social Impact Exchange’s recent Conference on Scaling Impact. Panelists and keynote speakers addressed the importance—and the complexity—of philanthropy, government, and the private sector working together to scale impact and thus enable progress on some of today’s most challenging social problems. 

At the panel discussion “When is Philanthropy (Ir) Relevant?” Sharon Alpert, Senior Director of Programs and Strategy at the Surdna Foundation analyzed an example of a recent collaboration and shared some critical insights from the Foundation’s recent efforts to increase its own ability to collaborate, internally and externally.

Sharon said that when the Board chose the foundation’s mission of fostering just and sustainable communities it explicitly chose three programs—Sustainable Environments, Strong Local Economies, and Thriving Cultures—that are interdependent. Collaboration across disciplines is becoming the norm at Surdna.

This emphasis on collaboration helps to explain the foundation’s success at creating a national network to help urban sustainability directors—officials vested with connecting environmental quality, economic prosperity, and community vitality and inclusivity—share what’s working and accelerate progress.

To link this new Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) with community and local place-based funders, Surdna and others established a matching fund at the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities to support community sustainability projects initiated jointly by USDN members and local foundations.

That fund, the Local Sustainability Matching Fund (LSMF), helped community foundations, which had next to no history of funding environmental projects, enter the field. An important development, said Sharon, because it’s at the local level where sustainability initiatives have the greatest traction and where growth capital is needed.

To get to a decision point, Surdna asked lots and lots of questions—mostly of itself: Would a matching fund even work? Would there be enough interest, or projects? And would those projects come from across the country, or be limited to cities like Seattle and New York? Would local partners step up? And would it change the way local funders do business? Could we really grow philanthropic dollars for sustainability work and get more funders interested in these issues for the long term? 

An early sign of the matching fund’s success has been the creation by local foundations of several new matching funds, based on the LSMF model. Local funders are gradually seeing themselves in a new role—as a conduit to, and partner between the local community and local government.

Sharon also observed that in complex collaborations, like those that led to the creation of the network and matching fund, challenges emerge mostly at what she calls the “soft edges” where flexibility and a willingness to adapt—while keeping the larger goals in mind—can help lead to success.

Returning to Surdna’s strategic plan, which the foundation calls its roadmap, she said an extraordinary amount of thought went into identifying and codifying a set of values and practices, like collaboration, that the foundation uses to increase the impact of its grant making.

Surdna’s leadership and board understood that to excel at collaboration, which is at the heart of their roadmap, would require additional program staff and the hiring of their first communications director. Collaboration requires a different way of working.  Too many well-meaning efforts to collaborate have failed from not investing enough time and resources. We need to recognize that not only in how we ask our grantees to work, but also how we align ourselves internally to support that work.

Collaboration, which was initially viewed as a grant making issue, became every bit as much an issue of capacity building.

Sharon knows that there are no easy paths to collaboration. She is relentless in pressing the foundation on collaboration: Is it just the flavor of the month—or something far greater? Does it genuinely reflect what we’re seeing in the field? Do our partners really want us to place such an emphasis on collaboration? Does it make our work stronger?

While she’s a firm believer in the added impact of collaboration, Sharon Alpert knows it’s hard, really hard. So she’s constantly asking, why the heck are we doing this, and how can we do it even better?  



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