Compe­ti­tion and collaboration

Foundations collaborate in different constellations. The complexity of their relationships makes for extra work.

When diffe­rent nonpro­fit orga­ni­sa­ti­ons colla­bo­rate, their aim is usually to streng­then their impact and find a more effec­tive way of achie­ving their shared goals. Colla­bo­ra­tion brings more infor­ma­tion and know­ledge. At the same time, it increa­ses comple­xity, as the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are shaped by very diverse cultures and have diffe­rent resour­ces and networks at their dispo­sal. When gauging the right form of colla­bo­ra­tion, there are various ques­ti­ons to be answe­red. Should decis­ion-making powers be retai­ned or not? Who is going to bear the finan­cial risk? One orga­ni­sa­tion may opt to roll the project out itself, shoulder the finan­cial risk and retain decis­ion-making powers. Or seve­ral orga­ni­sa­ti­ons may choose to cede both and look for a new spon­sor orga­ni­sa­tion. And between these two opti­ons lie a range of diffe­rent permu­ta­ti­ons. The human factor is always key to the success of the endea­vour. Power strug­gles, hidden agen­das or unvoi­ced assump­ti­ons can dimi­nish or even thwart any impact. Conver­sely, it is the cont­acts that are made on an infor­mal level that streng­then the colla­bo­ra­tion. The addi­tio­nal bene­fits this brings extend beyond the boun­da­ries of the actual colla­bo­ra­tion itself. 

Orga­nised without a legal entity

‘It is an inte­res­t­ing new form of colla­bo­ra­tion,’ comm­ents Sabine Maier, direc­tor of Viva­mos Mejor. In 2019, the NGO teamed up with five other Swiss aid orga­ni­sa­ti­ons to found Alli­ance Sufo­sec. In that same year, the Swiss Agency for Deve­lo­p­ment and Coope­ra­tion (DEZA) promi­sed the pros­pect of programme contri­bu­ti­ons for alli­ances. As Sufo­sec, the six part­ners successfully applied for funding for a joint programme.

And DEZA reco­g­nised the alli­ance for 2023–2024 contri­bu­ti­ons, too. Colla­bo­ra­tion between the members of the alli­ance is based on trust. This allows direct, straight­for­ward commu­ni­ca­tion among the orga­ni­sa­ti­ons and open dialo­gue. The alli­ance is pursuing a common goal: to effec­tively fight malnu­tri­tion and hunger by streng­thening sustainable, local food systems.  The orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are able to shine a stron­ger spot­light on the issue as an alli­ance and can learn from one another at the same time. For exam­ple, the alli­ance published a joint report on the hunger situa­tion based on surveys of 14,000 house­holds in 16 count­ries. Sufo­sec does not take the form of a legal entity. ‘At the moment, the orga­ni­sa­tio­nal struc­ture is very lean,’ Sabine Maier points out. Clear regu­la­tion, howe­ver, ensu­res that the members of the alli­ance hold equal status, despite their diffe­rent sizes. All bear the same costs for the alliance’s joint acti­vi­ties. All have the same say. The model works well.  The diffe­rent ways the indi­vi­dual members of the alli­ance func­tion is a chall­enge. Howe­ver, the diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves are mutually bene­fi­cial. Legal and admi­nis­tra­tive factors mean that a legal entity could become a possi­bi­lity in the future. But for now, the alli­ance is concen­t­ra­ting on fine-tuning its joint programme for 2025 and beyond.

Peer compa­ri­son

The prac­ti­cal aspects of the alliance’s colla­bo­ra­tion are based on diffe­rent models. When imple­men­ting their joint programme, when moni­to­ring and lear­ning from one another, colla­bo­ra­tion is close. The orga­ni­sa­ti­ons have set up a joint moni­to­ring system, for exam­ple, complete with shared soft­ware. But even though there are projects invol­ving joint fund­rai­sing, the indi­vi­dual orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are still not colla­bo­ra­ting much in this area. Each orga­ni­sa­tion also inde­pendently imple­ments projects that contri­bute to the higher-level goals. ‘At the same time, there are seve­ral joint lear­ning groups where we work on a parti­cu­lar issue toge­ther,’ Sabine Maier points out. The Stee­ring Commit­tee is in charge of stra­te­gic manage­ment, the Finance Group coor­di­na­tes finan­cial report­ing, and the Programme Group discus­ses plan­ning, moni­to­ring and results. Sabine Maier sees this as a major bene­fit of colla­bo­ra­tion. It means corre­la­ti­ons can be drawn. The work of the indi­vi­dual orga­ni­sa­ti­ons can now be compared in-depth with that of their peers. And joint surveys lead to a broa­der data basis with a more powerful infor­ma­tion value.

Decen­tra­li­sed organisation

A shared level of know­ledge and compe­tency can form the actual goal of a colla­bo­ra­tion. Specia­lists find their peers and learn from one another. The Swiss Life-Saving Asso­cia­tion (SLRG), for exam­ple, commu­ni­ca­tes closely with part­ner orga­ni­sa­ti­ons as a member orga­ni­sa­tion of the Swiss Red Cross. In turn, the SLRG is itself an umbrella orga­ni­sa­tion, made up of regio­nal and local sections. Its role as an umbrella orga­ni­sa­tion implies higher-level status. 

But the SLRG belie­ves in self-manage­ment. ‘We don’t even have a hier­ar­chi­cal setup at the natio­nal offices,’ comm­ents media spokesper­son Chris­toph Merki. He descri­bes its orga­ni­sa­tio­nal model as a hete­r­ar­chy – a decen­tra­li­sed model in which the various units of an orga­ni­sa­tion are not posi­tio­ned above or below one another but are largely on an equal footing. He also points out that a mutual under­stan­ding of roles and a posi­tive atti­tude towards colla­bo­ra­tion are crucial to the success of this orga­ni­sa­tio­nal format. 

The SLRG encou­ra­ges late­ral dialo­gue between the sections and atta­ches importance to direct cont­act between the specia­lists. Diffe­rent regio­nal sections join forces and colla­bo­rate on opera­ti­ons too. Chris­toph Merki stres­ses the advan­tage of the inde­pen­dence of the sections. They can conduct their projects in an agile manner. ‘You don’t need ever­y­thing to be control­led by head­quar­ters. The chan­nels are shorter.’ For colla­bo­ra­tion to work, hori­zon­tal and verti­cal commu­ni­ca­tion is important. Perso­nal cont­act plays a key role in faci­li­ta­ting the flow of infor­ma­tion. Inde­pen­dence also applies to finan­cial resour­ces. The umbrella orga­ni­sa­tion finan­ces natio­nal campaigns and coll­ects dona­ti­ons. But the sections have their own sources of finance too. The SLRG is also invol­ved in inter­na­tio­nal colla­bo­ra­tion, for exam­ple with the Inter­na­tio­nal Life Saving Federation.

An alter­na­tive model

In the phil­an­thropy sector, decis­i­ons on colla­bo­ra­tive formats are usually guided by the objec­tive. Working toge­ther towards shared goals should result in grea­ter impact. An alter­na­tive option is the umbrella foun­da­tion. It rein­forces the impact of each indi­vi­dual member inde­pendently. As a legal entity, the degree of forma­li­sa­tion is high. The admi­nis­tra­tive teams of the indi­vi­dual subfoun­da­ti­ons or funds bene­fit from the use of syner­gies here. 

Nine years ago, the Fontes-Stif­tung trans­for­med itself into the umbrella foun­da­tion Berner Dach­stif­tung. Accor­ding to foun­da­tion board member Guido Albi­setti, the move was trig­ge­red ten years ago, when the foun­da­tion began to receive incre­asing numbers of enqui­ries from smal­ler foun­da­ti­ons whose assets were gene­ra­ting next to no return as a result of low inte­rest rates. Income barely covered admi­nis­tra­tive costs. There were no resour­ces left to fulfil the foun­da­ti­ons’ aims. The umbrella foun­da­tion emer­ged as the ideal solu­tion here.

Rather than crea­ting a stream of new foun­da­ti­ons, as in the past, the umbrella foun­da­tion allows Guido Albi­setti to offer poten­tial foun­ders the oppor­tu­nity to fulfil their aims while keeping admi­nis­tra­tive costs low. Shared manage­ment of assets allows costs for smal­ler assets to be kept to a mini­mum. This enables subfoun­da­ti­ons or funds to gene­rate income and make a phil­an­thro­pic impact. A second reason was that many foun­da­tion board members are not keen on deal­ing with invest­ment matters and are able to outsource them with this model. ‘We weren’t speci­fi­cally looking to set up an umbrella foun­da­tion; we just wanted to find a way to help’, explains Guido Albi­setti. For it to work, they defi­ned the broa­dest possi­ble nonpro­fit purpose for the umbrella foun­da­tion. This allows the subfoun­da­ti­ons to be signi­fi­cantly inde­pen­dent in terms of their aims. The pros­pect of colla­bo­ra­tion, though, remains unli­kely. Guido Albi­setti points out that the umbrella foun­da­tion specia­li­ses in back­ground syner­gies that allow the funds and subfoun­da­ti­ons to devote the majo­rity of their resour­ces to their chari­ta­ble aims. Conver­sely, this means that the foun­ders who turn to the umbrella foun­da­tion alre­ady have a clear idea of the cause they want to engage in.

Effort needs to pay off

Orga­ni­sa­ti­ons can not only operate side by side, but also compete with each other. At the other end of the colla­bo­ra­tion scale are part­ner­ships with mutual orga­ni­sa­tion, resource manage­ment and stra­te­gic plan­ning – and there are nume­rous levels in between. Comple­xity clearly increa­ses in line with commit­ment. Part­ner­ship comes at a cost. It takes effort. As well as coor­di­na­tion and commu­ni­ca­tion. But it also brings rewards that are well worth the effort. The Jacobs Foundation’s (JF) part­ner­ship initia­ti­ves strive to gene­rate maxi­mum added value, create alignment, and drive a shared vision for coll­ec­tive action. 

Effec­tive colla­bo­ra­tion is most promi­sing when part­ners have comple­men­tary exper­tise: “Our aim is to be crea­tive part­ners and co-crea­tors, support­ing the deve­lo­p­ment of new connec­tions, networks, exper­tise and capa­ci­ties. It’s important for us to work with part­ners who are clearly commit­ted to sharing their know­ledge and/or resour­ces in a meaningful way,” says Donika Dimovska, Chief Know­ledge Offi­cer at the JF.

‘Our goal is to be crea­tive part­ners and co-crea­tors, support­ing the deve­lo­p­ment of new connec­tions, networks, exper­tise and capacities.’

Donika Dimovska, Chief Know­ledge Offi­cer bei der Jacobs Foundation

Making trans­pa­rent, colla­bo­ra­tive decisions

As a thought leader, JF is invol­ved in a wide range of part­ner­ship initia­ti­ves in focus count­ries and globally. Rather than adhe­ring to a fixed colla­bo­ra­tive approach, the foun­da­tion adapts its colla­bo­ra­tion to fit the needs of the situa­tion. Howe­ver, the JF has clear proce­du­res and proces­ses for decis­ion-making, imple­men­ta­tion, and report­ing, which must be trans­pa­rent and, when neces­sary, colla­bo­ra­tive. The JF can play various roles in a part­ner­ship, inclu­ding that of a cata­lyst, inspi­ring others to trans­form the system as outlined in its Theory of Change. The foundation’s objec­tive is to provide added value in a part­ner­ship by brin­ging toge­ther key inte­rest groups from within govern­ment, the private sector, acade­mia, and civil society. The JF aims to mobi­lize the use of evidence to streng­then lear­ning ecosys­tems in part­ner count­ries and inspire systems change beyond its reach. “The key to success is alig­ning around shared objec­ti­ves and incen­ti­ves and brin­ging parties that do not typi­cally come toge­ther to the table. If the objec­ti­ves and/or expec­ta­ti­ons are too diverse, it can be diffi­cult to estab­lish a successful part­ner­ship,” says Donika Dimovska.

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