A Watershed Moment for Philanthropy Infrastructure

The work of infrastructure organizations often feels like a "play within a play within a play" -- we're supporting our members' work in a particular region or on a particular issue while simultaneously grappling with it ourselves. When it comes to collaboration, the plot progression looks something like this: Philanthropy-supporting organizations attempt to help grantmakers address the persistent problems that exist in our world by encouraging them to collaborate. But then, in order to best support our grantmaker members, we must tap the expertise and experience of fellow infrastructure organizations, which requires that we ourselves become better collaborators. At the play's climax, we come together and use our collective knowledge and coordinated action to make important, systemic change in our field. It's a powerful story -- one that began to take shape last week the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers conference in Indianapolis.

For the first time, the conference brought together the leadership and staff of all organizations serving the philanthropic sector, including regional philanthropy associations, national philanthropy-serving organizations, and issue-based, identity-based and practice-based national affinity groups. This is significant not only because of the opportunity to learn from each other but also because it is indicative of a larger sea change in the philanthropic ecosystem.

For far too long, the relationships between infrastructure organizations have been fraught with territoriality and competition. However, it's a brand new day. Driven by a shared desire to help philanthropy be most effective, leaders of philanthropy serving organizations are embracing a mindset characterized by trust, openness and generosity of spirit. The fact that the Forum's conference has more than doubled in size through the inclusion of all philanthropy serving organizations is evidence of a shared yearning to learn together, strengthen relationships and build the conduits for good ideas to flow.

Our organizations are currently working to figure out how national and regional philanthropy serving organizations can collaborate for greater impact. Near the end of 2015, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Northern California Grantmakers, Southern California Grantmakers and San Diego Grantmakers began to discuss what cooperation between national and regional philanthropy-serving organizations might look like in practice. Before GEO entered the equation, the three regional associations had already begun collaborating -- a groundbreaking effort that put mission first and was well received by grantmakers. The regional associations' commitment to collaboration mirrored GEO's own. We were inspired to work together to support productive change in the California funding community for several reasons.

First, working together broadens the networks of all those engaged with the organizations, making it possible for innovative ideas and good grantmaking practices to spread further, faster. Network theory tells us that when the size of a group increases, the group's connections grow exponentially. With combined memberships of more than 1,000 organizations, the organizational connections made possible through our collaboration totals more than 500,000! (Using a simple formula to calculate the number of connections: n(n-1)/2, where "n" is number of people in group.) The more connections, the farther good ideas and practices will spread.

Second, our dissimilarities are a great strength. Research shows that creativity is unleashed when people who are unalike come together. We hope that by combining GEO's expertise in content creation and facilitation with NCG, SCG and SDG's strong relationships and deep understanding of local needs, we can speed up the adoption of smarter grantmaking practices in California.

Third, we're better together. The wisdom of crowds theory suggests that the aggregation of information in groups results in better decisions than those made by any single member of the group. Our partnership is centered on the conviction that together we not only make decisions that are beneficial to more people but we also achieve more than we ever could on our own.

Finally, if we are successful, others will take notice. If, by working together to deliver learning and networking opportunities, we are able to improve the effectiveness of California grantmakers, we hope that other national and regional philanthropy-serving organizations will recognize the value of cooperation and embrace it more broadly themselves.

We're all on a journey to discover who we need to be in order to effectively work in partnership. And that means letting go of territoriality and instead operating with a generous spirit and dedicating time to building relationships of trust. As innovation guru Steven Johnson states in Where Good Ideas Come From, "We are better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them." If we can adopt this mindset of openness and realize that, at our core, we are all striving for the best use of philanthropic dollars, we can more effectively help grantmakers tackle the toughest challenges of our time and achieve the greatest public good.