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What is a Funder’s Role in Collective Impact?

Last week, I was lucky to attend FSG’s and the Aspen’s Institute’s Collective Impact Forum conference in San Francisco. I learned achieving large-scale change through collective impact has five major components:

1) Common Agenda
2) Shared Measurement
3) Mutually Reinforcing Activities
4) Continuous Communication
5) Backbone Support

In one of the whole group sessions, someone shouted out a sixth major component: collective funding! The crowd seemed to unanimously agree. I wonder what this looks like.

I then learned a bit more about the functions of a backbone organization:

1)  Guide the vision and strategy
2)  Support aligned activities
3)  Establish shared measurable practices
4)  Build public will
5)  Advance policy
6)  Mobilize funding

I noted that funding was part of the core functions of a backbone organization, not necessarily to secure funding for the backbone, but for the collective initiative. After hearing directly from some backbone organizations, I tried to think about our role in all of this.  What are backbone organizations’ experiences trying to establish collective funding? Is it on the part of the backbone organization or the individual funders to establish funding/get involved? If a backbone organization doesn’t currently exist, what role does a funder have, if at all?

For more about FSG’s collective impact approach, visit:
FSG’s Approach

Now We Are 4

We’re still small, but at 4 people you feel like a team—a real team. With our new found identify, we just created the first version of our Team Manual. We reviewed policies and procedures materials created by other foundations and learned a lot about the topics and policies we might want to cover. We went with a lite version, which, I’m excited to say, is exactly two sides of paper. It started out as a multi-page document and after the realisation that it just wasn’t very PF to detail every possibility and scenario, we got it down to 2 sides. That covers hours, scheduling, holidays, time off, maternity leave, paternity leave, sabbaticals, benefits, performance reviews, compensation, reimbursements, and travel.

Here’s the beginning paragraph: “At the PF we only work with people we trust—that goes for grantees and team members. Our team members are expected to collaborate with each other and the community voraciously, but are also given autonomy within their roles and in managing their performance. There are areas of team support where we need to articulate what people can expect or plan on. That’s what this manual is for. We implement these policies with reasonable flexibility and expect our team to use them with good judgement.”

Good judgement. What does that mean?

We want our team to know the parameters we work within, and then have freedom to figure out how to use the space between to be at their best. Unexpected situations that will arise and we will navigate those in a timely manner, with trust and flexibility of all involved. Of course, that’s only possible when everyone values and exercises trust, autonomy, and good judgement—which is easier said than done. So, in the meantime that’s what we’ll spend our time building and practicing.


I think about empathy quite a lot, both in the context of my own ability to feel empathy for others, and the context of philanthropy at the PF, where we see high or low levels empathy have dramatic effects on society and its problems. Increasingly it seems clear that a lack of empathy is the root of most inequality, mis-treatment, or injustice in our world. So is it possible to have too much empathy?

A while ago I was taught a technique meant to be used to alleviate intimidation or nerves from public speaking. It involved a mental projection of white wings on to the backs of everyone in the audience, and thinking of everyone as an angel. Each angel trying to learn, grow, get through the day, deal with problems and figure out life. It’s basically an equalising visual. One day I was practicing this projection technique while I went for a run. Every person I passed on the pavement or pulling out of their drive way I pictured with their angel wings and tried to imagine why they looked happy, sad, bored, tired, excited, etc. A couple of blocks from my house I came across a young boy who had fallen badly off his bike. He was injured and crying. People had gathered, the police arrived and an ambulance had been called. I wasn’t needed as a problem solver in that situation, so just watched for a few moments as people exhibited care, concern and did what they could to help him. Behind the scene, I noticed two women with small children walking towards the boy. They were happy and laughing, obviously oblivious to what was going on. As they approached the scene the injured boy cried out in pain. One woman’s countenance immediately and entirely changed. All thought of her conversation with her friend disappeared and she ran to the boy screaming his name. It was clear the injured boy was her son.

I left the scene, got home and recounted the story to a friend. I burst in to tears as I told them about the woman. It was strange. There was no blood or tragedy. The boy would surely be fine. But for the moment I was focused on the mother, I had felt what she had felt. And it was emotionally overwhelming. I haven’t tried that mental projection technique since then.

Empathy is exhausting. We couldn’t feel what other people feel all day, every day and be productive. We would be constantly emotionally drained, and never get anything done. We suppress our ability to empathise for a reason.

However, on regular occasions it also seems clear that my and others’ levels of empathy are too low. I read about injustices and terrible wrongs being done to real people, and then go and eat my lunch. We all watched with disbelief the Youtube video of the toddler who was run over and then ignored by passers by. I truly believe I and society would be healthier if we all cultivated higher levels of empathy. It seems that most problems and issues are caused by or significantly escalated by a lack of empathy.

Empathy is what drives us to care and act on behalf of others. It makes for healthy and loving relationships, it stimulates good deeds, and often moves strangers to acts of heroism. It is the motivating force behind social entrepreneurs and philanthropy. It is a force for good.

So what is a healthy level of empathy? I’m not sure there’s a way to articulate or quantify that, but we need more of it.

Confessions of a Program Leader

Earlier this month Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation hypothetically asked, what if foundation heads and program officers got fired for lack of impact? It was an interesting question to ask and a provocative way to think about keeping ourselves accountable to what should be our ultimate goal: impact. Though, obviously, easier said than done. But this got me thinking, what else should I get fired for? Or what else would/should our partners/grantees fire us or other funders for if they could…? Probably the litany of bad philanthropic practises out there.

Confession time… Over the past few months I made some classic mistakes: Over communicated enthusiasm, jumped the gun in suggesting a meeting, and confused someone over our investment criteria. This past week I made a different one: Under communicated on a no (almost unavoidably, because sometimes it’s a million tiny things rather than 3 distinct reasons you can put in a bulleted list).

I think with this latter mistake I perhaps compensated slightly by a offering a follow up call which they took me up on -but you’d probably have to ask them if that helped or not.

And on the other stuff… It is really hard not to communicate personal enthusiasm for an idea when you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but your not sure if it’s not a fit for the fdn. And really hard to communicate a ‘no’. And really hard to be crystal clear about a criteria when you’re actually still developing it.

These are not excuses to hide behind. I suppose my point is to simply say, it can be tricky. And we take those tricky things seriously and take time to try our best to get them as right as we know how. There are absolutely some things we can learn from advice/research/peers. Yet, with many of the really important lessons, I’m not sure how a young foundation can figure these things out unless we are trying, sometimes failing, and hopefully quickly iterating to find a good solution. The ideal being: ‘Only make new mistakes’.

We’re still learning. There are still a lot of perhaps unavoidable mistakes that are new for me/us. And so I’m still getting some things wrong. I apologise if you’re ever on the receiving end of a ‘learning moment’. Kevin Starr, please don’t fire me yet…

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