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Collaboration, grantmaking and collective impact - AIGM's interview with Jennie Curtis

Executive director of the US' Garfield Foundation Jennie Curtis recently visited Australia to speak at the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network's conference. The AIGM spoke with her about environmental grantmaking, collaboration and collaborative impact.

GMI: How does the drawing together of advocacy groups and funding organisations/grantmakers in collaboration aid the changemaking effort?

Jennie Curtis: The concept behind it is that people are likely to get more accomplished working together than they would if working individually. For the Garfield Foundation it was motivated by a couple of different things.

The first was the very competitive atmosphere of American philanthropy. What I mean by that is that individual organisations have to prove that they are worth investing in by getting grants.

Also, having to compete with peer organisations for grant dollars that are defined by the foundation which has a particular "thing" they want to achieve that is agreed behind closed doors with their boards.

What the Garfield Foundation is trying to do is break that out a little bit and say:

  • We can do much more together if we understand the problem.
  • Foundations could do far more if we combined our resources versus keeping our grantmaking behind closed doors.
  • And we would learn a lot more by sitting with the advocates and non-profit organisations at the same table trying to understand the complexity of the problem or issue we are trying to change.
About the Garfield Foundation

Established in 2001, the Garfield Foundation has awarded more than 375 grants totalling more than US$34 million (currently $US3.1 million annually).

The Foundation awards grants that address "some of the most vexing environmental and social justice issues of the 21st century - global warming, biodiversity conservation, sustainable production and consumption, and urban renewal."

It aims to favour work which defines a clear path to get at root causes of entrenched problems; supports groups that embrace systems thinking and strategic outcomes in their program designs - and are thoughtful and transparent collaborators; and supports strategies that embolden wide-spread concern for the environment and the role of humans as caretakers of it.

One of its key initiatives is the RE-AMP Network, a collaborative effort involving the leading foundations and advocacy organisations through the US Midwest with the aim of reducing global warming. The network awards grants to projects which move to address the issue.

Learn more about the Foundation, and about Re-AMP, via the website.

GMI: The idea of gaining understanding from organisations at the grassroots level is clearly a vital part of what you do:

Jennie Curtis: It is, and there are a number of methodologies you could use for that.

The Garfield Foundation has chosen to use Systems Mapping and it is a little more complicated than it sounds because we have actually hired systems analysts to help the groups who have agreed to come together to do the System Mapping process.

But understanding the system is just a step. Once everyone has agreed that this is the system you're trying to reform, the next question is "How?"

So the next step in the collaborative networks model is to take what you learned from understanding the problem together and move into a strategic planning phase.

GMI: How does the involvement of advocates/non-profits encourage and aid funders to really hit the mark in terms of grants?

Jennie Curtis: You know, foundations are their own best motivators. I think it takes a couple of foundations willing to take leadership and persuade their colleagues that this type of approach is impactful.

And I'd also say - and again this is so much more the American context, I'm not as familiar with the Australian context quite as well - that foundations listen to their grantees.

In the case of RE-AMP, some of our NGO participants have gone to their funders and have said that "this is really worthwhile". And some of the NGOs have brought funders into the RE-AMP circle as well.

And they've ended up giving that way.

A good example of that has been in Ohio where one of our foundation participants only gives in Ohio, while RE-AMP is over an eight-state region.

But we definitely needed that type of partner in Ohio to make sure our Ohio participants were well-funded to do the work they needed to do.

GMI: How important is it for organisations to have the knowledge, time and scope to think and behave tactically before they go into an area and grant towards addressing an issue?

Jennie Curtis: I think it is critically important. Otherwise it is guesswork.

It might be good guesswork and it might be very impactful - and I don't want to sell short the good work organisations do.

But if we are addressing something like global warming pollution, we need to be looking at more than just the little activities that can be done to incrementally peck away at the problem.

We need to figure out what the big things that can be done are in order to move the system in the right direction.

And I just don't know how you get there unless you have the more serious, substantive analysis of what you are trying to change.

GMI: How hard is it for funders and grantmakers to release that sometimes they are simply not the subject area experts on these things, and that they need to give up a bit of their "power", to engage with those on the ground rather than barging through the door with grants cash?

Jennie Curtis: I think it is pretty important.

I would also put another element in there as well, which would be that foundations have the prerogative in deciding what they want to spend their charitable dollars on. And these may be things they care about deeply.

But I would say that if there were broader conversations among, at least, foundations working in a similar sector, they might be able so very effectively by aligning their grants dollars as opposed to picking a project here and there which might be more opportunistic.

I think that is where the value of the dialogue lays.

I'm not suggesting that foundations have to change what they care about. But I do believe they could be more strategic and aligned if they are in a deeper conversation; not only with other foundations but with advocates on the ground who are doing work.

GMI: In the American context, can the competitive approach some funders have - "doing our own thing to prove our worthiness" - be damaging in trying to encourage collaboration?

Jennie Curtis: Well, there are organisations that are really good at certain things, and you don't want to discourage them from that. I just think some situations could be more highly co-ordinated (with) groups working in a more complementary way.

I also think that partners - and I would do it in partnership with the NGOs - could encourage more collaboration.

RE-AMP for instance is actually a grantmaker; besides having all the "services" that fall under a network structure, they also have a $US3 million grant fund.

And members are able to apply for these grants, but they absolutely can't get a grant if they are not doing something in collaboration.

So there are ways to structure grantmaking guidelines, for instance, that could still be competitive but have criteria embedded in them that encourages collaboration in a more authentic way.

GMI: What would your advice be to a funder or funders who wish to develop such a collaborative network?

Jennie Curtis: There's a whole list of lessons we've learned!

But I would say in particular that you should identify clearly the group you want to work with or the issue that you want to work on, as well as helping people understand the problem together.

So that may be the step of having a funder who is willing to pay the cost of convening the group - you're bringing NGOs together, paying for the transportation, paying for the venue they're meeting at.

It could be a Systems Mapping process ... it could be something else that would help them understand the problem better together.

My other advice would be to stick with it. It is not going to be good enough just to pay for a meeting - you need to look beyond that, to the next steps to emerge from the meeting, and be there with your chequebook!

For example - if you are just going to do Systems Mapping without the follow-up support, it is going to stop there and not go much further.

Offering support beyond the chequebook is important, but I also think that some foundations might have limitations in that regard. It could be a capacity issue for themselves.

So maybe they need to pick their own level. I think the commitment is more important than the engagement. Engagement is ideal, and that has been the Garfield Foundation's choice.

We have about 15 foundation members who are part of the RE-AMP network - probably 10 of them are very active and five of them sit on the sidelines and are very interested but are simply unable to devote the same amount of time as the others.

In Australia at the moment green groups - particularly those which participate in advocacy work - are being threatened with the possible loss of their charitable status through Federal Government inquiries and proposals.

  • Have you experienced this type of thing through your efforts?
  • What can a funder do to support advocacy groups who are under fire?

Jennie Curtis: Back a few years ago we had some climate legislation proposed - and very close to passing - towards a carbon tax in the US. And it failed miserably in the end.

There had been a huge investment by American philanthropy in that effort, with a lot of promises that it would succeed and it didn't.

So a number of foundations helped the (NGO) groups do a bit of a post-mortem; an evaluation of what went right and what went wrong. And there were lots of robust discussions occurred around that.

Of course there was nothing quite as serious as threatening of charitable status.

I think the role of philanthropy when that happens is to speak up; to advocate where they can and to support as much as possible the NGOs that are under threat.

I think for foundations to sit on the sidelines (when this occurs) is unconscionable.

GMI: When you say "support", that goes beyond just continuing to give or to grant?

Jennie Curtis: Definitely. But it could also extend to the foundations funding something they wouldn't normally fund - for example, a lawyer or a solicitor!

I think that for philanthropy, it is as much in their interests that these organisations be strong and their certifications stay intact. So they need to engage.

Weakening these environmental groups goes beyond weakening foundations. It weakens civil society as a whole. It is far broader than just philanthropy or NGOs - it is part of what makes democratic societies function well.

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