Blueprint 2018 – Predictions

Cover of Blueprint 2018

The year that’s passed turned out to be quite a ride for philanthropy both big and small. Billions in new philanthropic dollars from a handful of donors at one end of the spectrum, plus billions more in crowdfunding across the globe. Regulatory provocations on dark money and charity. Global migration and natural disasters provide ample opportunity for civil society and philanthropy to take action. What’s in store for the year ahead? Here are a few predictions for 2018 – the full list is available in Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018.


  • FinTech (financial technology) will be a shiny new interest area for philanthropy in 2018.
  • Voice-activated giving (“Alexa, donate $10 to the Community Disaster Fund”) will make headlines.
  • The European Union will become the global standard bearer for digital privacy policy. Nonprofits everywhere will examine their privacy practices to abide by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

United States

  • Transparency advocates will demand regulation of political advertising on the Web and social media networks. They won’t get it.
  • Tech companies will increase their philanthropy and political giving as their reputations suffer.
  • Team communications tools that are slowly replacing internal corporate e-mail will be hacked, drawing as much attention as e-mail dumps did in 2016.

2018 Wild Cards (Surprising, unlikely things that just might happen)

  • Britain won’t Brexit.
  • The rate of growth in global carbon production will slow significantly.
  • Countries will begin competing to take in and take care of millions of refugees. 

P.S. If you didn't catch Predict-a-Palooza on January 11, watch a recording of this virtual roundtable of experts, scholars, and practitioners as they identify key trends and share predictions for 2018, including insights from Blueprint!

Editor’s Note: We were delighted to partner with Lucy on publishing the Blueprint for the past several years, and are still avid followers of her predictions! Explore past editions on GrantCraft here.

About the author(s)

Anchored in Place: How Funders Are Helping Anchor Institutions Strengthen Local Economies

This report issued by the Funders' Network as part of their Anchors Institution Funders' Group, examines the potential these deeply rooted local enterprises hold to create lasting and sustainable change—and illustrates how funders are working with anchor institutions to create healthier, more equitable, and economically vibrant places to live and work.


Katherine Pease


Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

Through IssueLab, the Foundation Center is working to more effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector by providing free access to thousands of case studies, evaluations, white papers, and issue briefs.

Small Prize. Big Change.

In the summer of 2014, I read that George Washington University, American University, and The George Washington University Hospital were going to buy 52 megawatts of power every year from a North Carolina solar farm. At the time, it was the largest non-utility solar power purchase in the U.S. and the largest solar project east of the Mississippi River. The icing on the cake was that they were getting fixed pricing for solar energy for 20 years at a lower price than the current market.

In Boston, with its abundance of colleges, hospitals, and large institutions—all major energy users—many wondered, “Could we do something similar here?” The Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC), a group of business and civic leaders committed to helping Boston achieve its climate goals (supported by Barr and several local philanthropies) also considered this question. Testing the idea in their networks, they found a lot of interest in joint purchasing, but uncertainty about how it might work. To try converting that interest into action, Barr and the GRC decided to experiment with a prize.

Launched in summer 2015, the goal of the $100,000 Renewable Energy Leadership Prize was to spur local leaders to take renewable energy purchases from concept to reality. On February 25, 2016 the GRC announced the winner: PowerOptions, in partnership with Tufts University and Endicott College. The largest energy-buying consortium in Massachusetts, PowerOptions was already procuring electricity and natural gas supply for 500 nonprofit and public members, but had never solicited a power purchase agreement for offsite renewables. Teaming up with two of its members, Tufts University and Endicott College, the nonprofit proposed to purchase up to 12 megawatts of power from a wind project in New England.

Summit Farms solar farm in North Carolina. © Dominion Resources

Other applications came from Boston University and A Better City, a consortium of Boston institutions and civic leaders. Although A Better City's deal was not completed in time for the prize deadline, the work initiated in response to the prize carried on. Three Boston-area institutions—Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Medical Center (BMC) and Post Office Square Redevelopment Corporation (POS) teamed on a purchase agreement for a 60 megawatt solar farm in North Carolina.  This is the largest renewable-energy project ever built in the U.S. through an alliance of diverse buyers. A Better City's effort was also documented in a recently-released case study.

Here are five of my key takeaways from supporting the prize:

1. Prizes can spark action and innovation. 

Our initial hope and hypothesis was that a prize would catalyze action and innovation, and that turned out to be right. There was a risk that there would be no takers and we were pleasantly surprised to see such significant interest. The prize spurred the three applicants to devote considerable time and effort to solving the puzzle of buying offsite renewable electricity. The applicants were in different stages of readiness and had different factors motivating their actions, and the prize helped push them to their finish lines by creating deadlines for accomplishing what some had been planning to do for some time.  

2. Identify a strong partner to administer the prize. 

We were fortunate that we had the GRC to partner with on the prize, as we did not have the in-house capacity to administer the prize ourselves. Comprised of key business and civic leaders and co-chaired by Boston’s Mayor and Barr Foundation’s trustee and founder, the GRC is also a highly credible and respected entity, which made it a suitable host of the prize.  The Commission staff handled the entire prize process—researching power purchase strategies, arranging technical assistance and guidance on purchase agreements, issuing the prize proposal requests, assembling a stellar selection committee of experts, and handling logistics and communications. 

3. Collaboration takes time, but multiplies returns. 

The prize placed a high premium on collaborative proposals, with the theory that joint procurement and diversity of organization types (hospitals, higher education, private companies) would yield better results and shared learning.  While this created a barrier to wider participation, it also tested the theory that institutions could collaborate to negotiate stronger green power purchases. The collaborative nature of the projects did take more time, but made for better financial deals in the end, capturing significant financial benefits for the participating institutions.

In fact, the participants’ experiences in crafting and negotiating these deals have provided them with jumping-off points to continue their efforts and to inspire others. For example, A Better City is developing an energy procurement service for its members. The prize participants have also been very enthusiastic about sharing their learnings. To share the lessons learned from the prize, the GRC published a case study, called Solving the Puzzle

4.  Be prepared for unexpected complications. 

While I knew going into this that the world of renewable energy purchasing was complex, I didn’t fully appreciate the range of challenges that the prize applicants encountered. All of our prize applicants went through twists and turns on the way to securing their deals. 

There were huge price variations between technologies and regions. For example, as part of its proposal, A Better City's group initially thought they would use and retire renewable energy credits (a mechanism to incentivize renewable energy) from New England. But, along the way, they discovered they could save money and have a bigger impact on emissions by looking outside of their region. New England’s power grid is largely free of coal. So, a New England solar project (which might displace natural gas in the power grid) will prevent less pollution than a similar project in the coal-heavy Southeast.  In the end, A Better City selected a solar farm in North Carolina. 

Changing state, regional, and federal policies had major implications for the nature and timing of the deals.  Strong energy policies drive progress in clean energy, but can be difficult to understand and navigate.  At the time of the contest, state solar regulations and federal tax credits were both up in the air causing delays.  The applications, and the response from potential suppliers, were affected by this uncertainty.

Funders considering launching prizes need to be prepared for unforeseen events and conditions. But, in the end, all this complexity and persistence on the part of applicants was worthwhile because of the significant financial benefits which were captured by the prize applicants.

5. Long-term sustainability and goal alignment takes the prize.

Applicants for any prize may be motivated by the short-term benefit of the prize money and positive recognition. Yet, what our selection committee was most focused on was long-term commitment to the goals of the effort (in this case clean energy/carbon emissions reductions). Interestingly, all three finalists also demonstrated a strong case for financial sustainability. Even without the prize money or ongoing philanthropic support, the economics of their proposals would work over the long term.  As a result, all three finalist projects went forward – not only the prize-winning proposal.  While this happened in our experience even without specifying sustainability as an application requirement, future prize efforts might benefit from making that an explicit criterion.

Based on this experience, I would strongly encourage other funders to consider launching prizes as a way to unlock action and innovation. The Renewable Energy Leadership Prize was particularly useful here in Boston, where higher education, healthcare, and private companies have the potential to directly purchase renewable energy, and the prize motivated them to commit to such purchases. There is still work to be done to expand interest in renewable energy purchases and to make it easier for institutions to participate. But, the prize offered a major learning opportunity about what it takes for institutions and companies to engage in renewable energy purchases.

This piece was adapted and updated from a May 2016 post on the Barr Foundation's blog. The Barr Foundation is committed to addressing climate change by advancing solutions in clean energy, mobility and resiliency. To read more by Mariella Puerto click here

About the author(s)

Co-Director of Climate
Barr Foundation

SDG Indicator Wizard

How Does Your Work Align with the SDGs?

The SDG Indicator Wizard helps you determine which Sustainable Development Goal(s) and Targets relate to your work. Enter your mission statement, strategy or goals, and the wizard will translate your strategic priorities into an SDG-compatible framework consisting of the relevant goal(s), targets, and indicators that are universally comparable.

The SDG Indicator Wizard Widget can be embedded onto any website and there is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android users. Search for SDG Wizard on iOS App Store or Google Play Store, download it, and see how your work relates to the SDGs from your mobile.

View Tool

Using Low-Cost Technology to Democratize Data and Protect Public Health: Case Studies in Pittsburgh

Over the past several years, the Environment & Health Program at The Heinz Endowments has prioritized work to help the Pittsburgh region become truly livable. Many metrics can contribute to a definition of a livable city, and Pittsburgh often touts itself as a “most livable” city. But it is hard to imagine how a city with dirty air, a notably toxic built environment, safe drinking water challenges, and other environmental health issues is most livable.

How bad is the problem? Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 12 percent of urban areas monitored in the United States for average annual particle air pollution. Allegheny County ranks in the top two-tenths of 1 percent with respect to cancer risk from power plants and other large industrial sources. The city is presently struggling to come to terms with drinking water quality challenges including lead-containing service lines in old housing infrastructure, sewage overflow from stormwater, and elevated disinfectant byproducts from the fossil fuel industry. These byproducts carry cancer risks, and the health threat is exacerbated by the coal fly ash and natural gas wastes in the city’s source waters.

In response, the Endowments has supported numerous efforts to develop low-cost technologies and data visualization platforms that reveal environmental conditions and can be used by the general public, educators, advocacy groups, and policymakers. Some of these tools and efforts are available through our Breathe Project initiative, such as the Breathe Cam with its live-camera views of the region and pollution maps showing the best estimates of the annual average concentrations of different pollutants in Allegheny County.

The Breathe Cam network technology was used to assist a community experiencing intense smell and health impacts from nearby industrial air pollution. The facility produced metallurgical coke, which is used in making steel. The CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University designed a surveillance system that was installed in homes and businesses owned by private citizens and overlooking the coke works. The system provided continuous video, weather and pollution data that provided evidence of chronic emissions problems to regulatory authorities. This helped put pressure on government and industry to be more accountable to community well-being and public health. With increased scientific scrutiny and empirical evidence, there was more transparency and feedback to ensure that emissions violations would be corrected, and less pollution would burden the community.

Recently, the CREATE Lab launched an app called Smell Pittsburgh. It provides geo-coded, crowd-sourced methods for engaging the public on air quality conditions in the city. Users can share their experiences, map environmental impact, and send formal complaints to regulators in real-time.

Here are four lessons that we’ve learned through our experience investing in the development and use of these tools:

  • Use technically sophisticated and socially-oriented engineering teams who see their mission as helping to support communities and human well-being. Ideally, the team includes outreach persons who have media and communications training.
  • From the start, the technical work as developed and executed should integrate community-based experience; this includes working with community members and advocacy groups.
  • Develop a communications platform that can aggregate and analyze data; translate output into sharable information; and, ideally, support the efforts of advocacy networks.
  • Ensure that the monitoring technologies work well, serve the needs of user groups, and are rigorously tested (ideally by third parties). In the rush to develop and provide low-cost sensor technologies – which can be technically challenging and complex – there is the risk of promoting and launching tools that are inadequate.

When thinking about using low-cost monitoring technologies and data visualization for strategic grantmaking, consider all objectives and design the implementation to meet those needs. We have learned that there is no all-purpose technology; trade-offs are necessary.

Moreover, the data should be relevant and readily usable by all. For example, a question to consider upfront is whether the data should be relevant to legal teams and regulators. Is the information that is gathered intended for educational outlets, such as classrooms? Will the data be publically shared, open-source, proprietary? Will the data have the ability to engage the public in meaningful ways?

Thanks to innovative and creative work to make data relevant and engaging to all, Pittsburgh is starting to experience a transformation toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable city. Individuals, communities and neighborhoods – especially those experiencing disproportionate harm from environmental challenges – are demanding more accountability of their regulatory and political leaders.

The Heinz Endowments is part of the Health & Environmental Funders Network (HEFN) who helped to curate this blog post. HEFN is the "go-to" place for grantmakers interested in environmental health and justice issues and works to mobilize philanthropy around solutions for environmental health and justice. Click here to learn more about their work.

About the author(s)

Environment & Health Program Director
The Heinz Endowments

Open Innovation: A New Operating System for the Social Sector

Five years ago, I was part of a team that applied the resources and ambition of Google to global problems. I’m proud of what we achieved through building technology that engaged millions of Google users. But it also became clear to me that no matter how deep our pockets were or how ubiquitous our technology was, truly moving the needle on the world’s biggest problems required not just new apps, but a whole new operating system.

Today, I lead OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform that uses design thinking and collaboration to develop solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges with a global community. Together with our partners, we’re exploring how to build global ecosystems that can address long-term threats such as climate change, as well as extreme shocks, like the zika epidemic.

We believe that a key to a new operating system for the social sector is to change how innovation is surfaced and supported. RFPs that flood funders with applications behind a firewall concentrate knowledge in silos. Both funders and recipients can benefit from making grant giving more collaborative, transparent, and iterative.

Currently, we’re in the early stages of the BridgeBuilder Challenge, a collaboration with GHR Foundation in which we’re looking for solutions for global challenges at the intersection of peace, prosperity and planet. There is a deep need for dialogue and collaboration across these issue areas, and our challenge platform provides a space for that. The BridgeBuilder Challenge is therefore not organized as a traditional challenge with winners and losers, but as a quick and inviting way to build an impactful community.

Already over 190 solutions have been submitted, ranging from Pioneer Valley Renewables, that  makes underwater turbines to improve electricity access in rural communities, to BanQu, a software technology that connects refugees and the world’s poorest to the global economy through digital identity.

Unlike traditional RFPs, these initial submissions were published openly online. Initially, they are very rudimental, often no longer than one or two pages. In the coming months, the applicants will go through a process in which they refine their ideas in collaboration with a global community, which includes the other participants, experts from GHR foundation and IDEO, and leading experts in their own fields. Through this process, we encourage participants to collaborate from an early stage, allowing for iterations and interactions, which often lead to long-term collaboration after the challenge. 

The prize for the top ideas thus goes beyond the financial reward of a share of $1M in funding and a partnership with GHR, but participants also gain visibility, learn about design thinking for social innovation, and collaborate with others—important assets necessary to tackle complex, global challenges.

The process is beneficial to funders too. It allows them to quickly source diverse perspectives and map the innovation landscape on a topic. They’ll get to know prospective grantees better than through an RFP, by seeing how applicants incorporate feedback and iterate, in real-time. The process also enables other funders to connect with the participating organizations, and potentially fund ideas that are outside the scope of GHR Foundation. Rather than be hidden on the hard drives of a single grantmaker, the knowledge gathered through the challenge process will remain open and accessible for other funders to access at any time.

In the case of the BridgeBuilder Challenge, our objective is not just to find and foster the best ideas, but also to advance the mindset of the participants. In the words of GHR Foundation CEO Amy Goldman: “This open challenge allows us to find solutions we’d otherwise never discover, and aims to inspire more organizations to innovate by developing bridge building concepts.”

In the past six years OpenIDEO has learned a lot about bringing open innovation to the grant giving process, but our quest to reinvent the social sector’s operating system is far from over. We’re currently exploring how the ecosystems we build can be nurtured for the long term, and how to better unlock and share the power of what is learned in the process.

And we don’t want to do that in isolation! We hope you’ll join us:

  • Submit an idea or help spread word of the BridgeBuilder Challenge (deadline is April 14!).
  • If you’re a funder, sign up here for a behind-the-scenes call to hear our insights from the Challenge.
  • Share your insights on a new operating system for the social sector in the comments below!

About the author(s)

Managing Director

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants. 

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities.

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches: 

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have at least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

 So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us. 

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. To view more posts in this series click here

About the author(s)

New Media Ventures

Democratizing Philanthropy Using Technology One couple’s vision for transforming worldwide marine conservation efforts

“With more unbiased information about what’s happening on the ground, wouldn’t nonprofits and funders alike make better decisions and investments?”

For Alan Chung and Buffy Redsecker, the husband and wife duo behind the SunLight Time Foundation, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!”

A steadfast belief in technology as a means for building connections, creating transparency, and accessing data influenced Alan and Buffy in their giving ever since they began to think of themselves as philanthropists in 2009. It served as a driving force behind their support for a collaborative venture that has resulted in a new technology portal where funders and nonprofits committed to marine conservation can see who’s doing what and share knowledge with each other.

Alan and Buffy envision many uses of this new portal, including changing the way in which funders select grantees. Early on in their giving, they recognized the age-old challenge funders experience when trying to determine the “right” organizations to invest in. “Many foundations pay program officers to gather information,” says Buffy. “But how do we change the fact that philanthropy is often an insiders’ club of who knows who about what?”

Indeed, many funders follow a similar process when deciding who and how to fund. Often, donors or foundation staff gather data themselves, or hire a consultant to do it. Sometimes they consult with colleagues about who they know and fund. In some instances, funders meet with those recommended NGOs to hear their sense of who’s on the scene, what’s important to invest in, and how. Some argue that this process reinforces philanthropy’s elitism, whereby only organizations known within that funder’s trusted circles make it into the potential grantmaking pool.

As donors whose wealth and expertise come from creating software companies, it’s no surprise that Alan and Buffy have turned to innovative technology-based tools to level the playing field for nonprofits and funders. “Our philanthropy supports creative and disruptive approaches to traditional problems with an emphasis on planetary health,” says Buffy. “Technology, which is often underutilized in philanthropy, allows for more open spaces for connectivity. We’re inspired by platforms like Wikipedia that can respond in real time and are changeable. We hope this will be a space where all interested parties can interact, share feedback, and build community.”

When it comes to ocean funding, Alan and Buffy discovered that they weren’t the only funders seeking access to better data. “In 2010, I was at a meeting at National Geographic headquarters with funders, NGOs, and other stakeholders to explore ways to improve marine conservation,” says Buffy. “Each group was asked to come up with one thing we needed most. The gathered funders agreed: we need a map to better know and share information about who’s working on the ground on ocean issues worldwide.”

Long before this meeting, Alan and Buffy started investing in Marine Watch International, a small NGO seeking to create a place to share knowledge and connect ocean conservation efforts around the world. Alexandra Sangmeister founded Marine Watch in 2000 after working with WildAid on a shark finning report. “We were amassing so much data on ocean conservation efforts worldwide,” says Alexandra. “I realized there was no place to put the data, nowhere for people to share innovations in the field and collaborate. I wanted to create something that if you only had six months to save the oceans, it could help people mobilize quickly and effectively.”

Despite Marine Watch’s small size, Alan and Buffy decided to support Alexandra’s big vision. Then, over the years, with support from donors like Alan and Buffy who stayed involved, encouraging, sometimes discouraging, and consistently making new introductions, the concept evolved. “Sometimes it takes a one-person operation to have a truly global impact,” says Buffy. “Alexandra had a good idea 18 years ago and Alan and I saw how what she was doing could become an innovative solution to a longstanding global challenge.”

Since meeting Alexandra, Alan and Buffy have made regular small grants of $5,000-6,000 to Marine Watch. Their funding has supported Alexandra’s capacity to attend international ocean-related conferences and network, as well as computer basics. This support, alongside Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff’s in-kind contribution of free licensing use of Salesforce software, enabled her to prototype an interactive database and online community for conservation efforts spanning the globe.

Here’s how Marine Watch’s efforts will work: “Every NGO can create a profile, chat back and forth, and create groups,” says Alexandra. “So if you’re going to a conference, you can upload your materials here for everyone to see. Or if you want to know who’s working on sea turtles – whether you’re working on research, grassroots conservation, or policy work – you can find each other and engage online. And it’s free!” Indeed, NGOs large and small can upload information on who they are, where they’re working, and what conservation efforts they’re undertaking on the back end. Then they can join in the online community to connect with each other privately and securely.

NGOs won’t be the only beneficiaries. “Funders and NGOs both need to know who’s on the ground,” says Alexandra. “That way, it’s not just the more well-known, big nonprofits getting several million dollars while grassroots organizations aren’t at the table. Conservation efforts benefit when organizations big and small work together and when there’s a balance of support to them. That’s harder to accomplish if funders don’t know who’s out there.”

After learning about Foundation Center’s data, mapping platform, and technology capacity, Alan and Buffy made a grant to them in 2016 to create a publicly-facing knowledge portal: Buffy also facilitated connections to networks of marine funders including Oceans 5 and the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity’s Marine Conservation Program, which led to additional support for Foundation Center by The Campbell Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Oak Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Foundation Center has filled the portal with its data sets, a custom mapping application, and a knowledge center of research reports, case studies, and other resources. They are working closely with Alexandra to link this freely accessible public resource with Marine Watch’s cloud-based platform for engagement on the back-end. “This portal has the potential to drastically cut down the time it takes foundations to perform due diligence,” says Buffy. “All while increasing foundation transparency about what and how they fund.”

Ultimately, democratization is the desired end. This new ocean portal builds on a legacy of innovations – including the printing press, public libraries, and the Internet itself – to make knowledge a common resource. While less curated and centralized knowledge sources can affect accuracy and reliability, for many, including Alan and Buffy, the desired end of giving voice and sharing access and power among diverse stakeholders beyond an elite class, prevails. “Our goal is helping to figure ways to leverage data platforms that become global game changers in the way money moves,” says Buffy. “Especially in areas like conservation. We have to step up for the planet. Tools like this empower everybody to know what’s happening and get involved.”

Alexandra agrees. “Marine Watch’s interactive database and online community, now linked to the portal, allows people like me to get into new spaces and connect with others, including funders, to pursue our big dreams to save the world. Sometimes it’s that person with a full-time job but who has the grit to start a small venture and reimagine the way things work.”

Already, conversations are underway about how the portal concept can be replicated in entirely different fields. Although Alan and Buffy recognize how things like this can’t be built in a day. “Game changers take time. Some take years of thinking about and processing before you can get some altitude on them.”

This case study was developed as a companion piece to stories shared through Foundation Center’s Funding the Ocean project. Funding the Ocean is a dynamic hub to inform and inspire ocean conservation philanthropy around the world. It includes a mapping application, repository of reports and case studies, and a cloud-based platform for engagement.

What Makes Advocacy Collaboratives Successful?

MOST IMPORTANT: Well-defined goals and agendas

What’s the most important factor in successful advocacy collaboratives? Funders were unanimous: Clear and well-defined goals that all members understand and support and can return to often when there's confusion or conflict. The sharper and narrower the goals are, the better.

How does this help?

  • It frames a more strategic discussion among collaborative members for the work. “You have to be focused on a solid target, whether it’s overturning Citizens United or getting comprehensive immigration reform. Even if it’s not successful, having this target forces you into a strategic conversation.”
  • It leads the collaborative to be more specific with grantees about what it’s doing, which, in turn, ensures more on-target applicants; rather than having new and broad appeal, the collaborative can more clearly and narrowly articulate a focus.
  • It helps mitigate tension when there are disagreements about strategy or direction. “When our collaborative, which had abolishing the death penalty as its major goal, would drift from that or get hung up with disagreements, we’d always bring it back to the goal we all agreed on: abolition. We reminded the group that we were all there to achieve that end goal so we needed to do everything we could do to win.” The goals in this case serve as an accountability mechanism.
  • It keeps the work focused on action, rather than “devolving into funder continuing education and things like joint site visits, which are important, but they often aren’t particularly action-oriented. Rolling up your sleeves and digging into specific policy objectives is an experience funders don’t always get to have because their job is usually focused more on doing due diligence.”
  • It’s easier to measure progress and success. The fuzzier or more complex the issue is, the harder it will be for funder collaboratives to figure out whether they’ve been successful. “We had very specific policy ends: A Supreme Court decision in our favor and state referendum wins. That’s really different than saying ‘racial justice’ is your goal. You can’t get 100 people in a room to agree on what that is! So, how are you going to figure out if you’ve moved the needle?”
  • It creates a clear marker for evolution or disbandment. For some collaboratives, the right thing to do is to “go out of business when they’ve reached their goals, rather than sitting around asking ‘what should we do now?’” Still other collaboratives find that reaching their goal creates a moment to evolve and redefine what the group can achieve together. 

In addition to well-defined goals and agendas, there are several other factors that point to success:

  • Sticking with it over the long term, with the understanding that success will not necessarily be the result. Policy change is difficult, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Collaboratives can help funders hold steady. “Grantmakers who are part of advocacy collaboratives have to be patient and go into these things understanding that sometimes it takes years to see any kind of change.” And, even after seeing change, policy could be reversed by changes in government or other factors. Because many advocacy collaboratives also provide capacity building support—for both individual grantees and the larger field—sustained commitment is doubly important. “But you have to provide this kind of technical assistance if you want to be successful. You can’t just drop money into groups or locales and hope for the best. It takes time, patience, and focus.”Staying the course, however, can be a heavy lift for a lot of foundations, which tend to “change up their strategy and/or programs every few years.” To deal with this, advocacy funders say that they enlist their collaborative colleagues to pull together a strong case and make commitments to each other that will help persuade their institutions to stay the course. “Our collaborative did this as a group, which each of us could use at our own foundations. We saw that it helped make our institutions feel less anxious about the work because they were able to say, ‘look we have other funders working with us.’”Policy work is risky, and the policy environment is always shifting, meaning that sometimes even the best funder collaboratives may fail in reaching their goals. “Funders who want to join these kinds of collaboratives have to make sure they and their institutions are clear that this work can be very unpredictable and there is always the specter of failure looming over you. You—and your foundation—have to be able to accept that.” While sticking with it is something successful collaboratives do well, funders also caveat that “knowing when it’s time to change approach or even stop working is very tricky. There’s a need to balance staying with the plan long enough to know whether it’s working, but not so long that resources are spent in vain.” Funders focused on the end result need to remain vigilant about monitoring progress, changing contexts, and emerging opportunities to reflect on – and update – strategy to stay on course.
  • Getting the right mix of funders to participate. So much depends on having the right mix of people at the table, advocacy funders say. “In our collaborative, we had a nice mix of different kinds of foundations and individual donors. We also had big and small foundations. Having that kind of diversity brought a lot of different and important perspectives to the table.” Small foundations, in particular, “often have a lot to contribute beyond money, so we’re able to take advantage of that by using a more inclusive approach.”Having funders with diverse skill sets at the table is also important. “If we were all experts on these issues in the same ways, we wouldn’t have been as successful.” And, diverse backgrounds across factors such as race, religion, military service, physical ability, sexual orientation, academic training, family structure, and beyond brings essential perspectives that help overcome a single-background narrative. Having members that belong to population groups directly affected by the work of the collaborative is especially essential.And, of course, there’s always the issue of chemistry. “Whether a collaborative works well is about who’s at the table. Do they participate? Do they show up? If the time isn’t well spent or the process isn’t getting you to a good set of decisions you feel good about, it won’t succeed. You’ll also lose participation if you’re unable to find a way to get people to agree and work together well because people won’t feel positive about the experience.” While “chemistry” isn’t a checkbox item that is necessarily seen from the beginning of work together, it is something that is usually known after the first few meetings. Collaboratives with good chemistry understand how to listen to the “gut feeling” of how different people and organizations will gel together, and build the composition of the group accordingly.
  • Building and breathing a culture of trust and collaboration. While it might seem logical that funder collaboratives would be, well, collaborative, developing those kinds of cultures can be challenging. “When we started, the field was relatively new, and funders were just getting to know each other as a new group so they had to build trust, which takes time. But we knew that if we were going to get alignment around a shared strategy, we were going to have to trust each other first. As a long-time advocacy funder and activist, I’ve seen that no matter what the issue, the more funders know and trust each other, the more successful they are.”Grantmakers say it’s important that the collaborative’s members—especially long-time members—and staff be intentional about promoting an inclusive and informational culture that adds value to people’s work. “Like any good organization, you have to make it a political home that people like. You can’t do it on dry merit alone. People have to feel affirmed.”Making new donors feel comfortable is also important. Some collaboratives have existing members invite new members out for drinks or coffee to answer questions they might have before a larger meeting. Others have a culture that encourages new members to “say anything at the table, and you’re not considered a ‘junior’ member. It’s good for new members to see that and be embraced by everyone. This kind of openness and acceptance makes it easier to recruit new people to our advocacy collaborative.”
  • Including the field affected by the collaborative’s work in shaping the strategy for the collaborative. Many grantmakers believe that advocacy collaboratives work best when their strategies reflect the involvement of the issue-specific field and its stakeholders —from helping to set priorities to designing the strategy. “If you’re in our collaborative, you have to agree to work with and take direction from the strategic leadership of the campaign we’re supporting and who aren’t grantmakers. They are the strategists, and if they say, ‘the next six months, we really need communications’ or ‘next year, we’re getting bills in Utah and South Carolina so let’s work there,’ we’ll listen to what they say and align our funding accordingly.”Some funders, however, believe that grantmakers and the field can have parallel strategies as long as they’re mutually complementary “and there’s communication between the two.” What’s most important, they say, is being clear about grantmakers’ role in the process—not just to the collaborative’s members but also to strategists leading the campaigns. “You have to have a sense of who you are in the field. Are you another advocate? Or are you a partner with the grantees in the field? Are you a collaborator? Or are you taking a more traditional approach—being more at arm’s length from the grantees and being in control of making the decisions? It’s important to be clear and transparent about this with grantees.”
  • Leaving egos at the door. Advocacy funder collaboratives, funders agree, aren’t the place for big egos. To be successful in a collaborative, “individual members need to be committed to contribution not attribution! They need to check their institutional egos at the door. The focus needs to be on what the group is doing and who they’re doing it for—not on who gets credit.”Compromise and humility play an important role. “You’re joining with others, and you broaden your focus when you sit down at the table. You decide you’ll be more effective in a collaborative than you would be on your own because there’s strength in numbers.”
  • Hiring quality staff or facilitators. A number of advocacy funders point to staffing as a key ingredient in successful collaboratives. “We’ve been able to pay for the staffing at our collaborative. Two of those staff members came from foundations that had donated to the collaborative. Other funders have thought about applying for these jobs, which says something about the quality of the staffing. If you can afford it, hiring smart staffers is a smart move the collaborative should support.”Sometimes that staffing comes in the form of an intermediary. “I’ve found that collaboratives that have used intermediaries well tend to be quite effective. They have to be supported, though, because they provide a lot of additional services for grantees like capacity building, technical assistance, and convenings—a lot of the stuff that individual funders can’t or don’t do but that are critical to sustaining this work!”Having a “strong facilitator who’s not a grantmaker”—either as part of the staff or as a consultant—is also important, many grantmakers say. “There are many occasions collaboratives may need to call in an external facilitator—disagreements about strategy, personality conflicts, analysis paralysis, and other issues that the group may be unable to resolve itself. We’ve found them to be enormously helpful in getting us unstuck.”
  • Promoting strong leadership. Some grantmakers say that the best advocacy collaboratives “are those with someone—or a group of funders—with a clear vision and who can bring people along with that vision.” An important part of that leadership is being ever vigilant to potential problems or challenges that could derail the group’s commitment or solidarity to the goals they agreed on.That doesn’t necessarily mean that collaboratives have to have a formally-elected or appointed leader. Rather, all members should feel comfortable in assuming the role of helping the group keep on track when it starts to veer off.That sometimes requires different skill sets. After serving as the leader of an advocacy funder collaborative, one grantmaker said that she’d come to realize that leadership isn’t just about vision or “keeping the eyes on the prize.” While those are important, if she ever led a collaborative again, she’d approach that role differently—“less as a director and more a facilitated leadership approach. I’ve learned how important good facilitation can be when it comes to keeping collaboratives running smoothly because so much is about facilitating decisions, not forcing them.”
  • Building a strong field and infrastructure to support ongoing policy work on the issue(s). A striking number of funder advocacy collaboratives view field building as important as “wins.” “You can have a bunch of policy wins, but if there’s no infrastructure to support the work going forward, it won’t have as much impact.”There are many ways to do this—capacity-building assistance, organizational development support, general support. The important thing to remember, however, is that while “policy goals are the priority, advocacy collaboratives also have to keep their eyes on the infrastructure behind pushing for those policies.” Without it, another funders says, “this work will never be sustainable.”
  • Funders see value in their participation. Successful advocacy collaboratives have robust participation. “Grantmakers have to perceive that they’re getting a lot of value from their involvement. Otherwise, they’ll leave because they want their time to be well spent.” Maintaining participation and longevity, in fact, can be a good barometer of what’s working for the people participating in the collaborative. “If they don’t show up or don’t participate or leave halfway through—those are warning signs.”Unsurprisingly, the more people know and trust the other collaborative members, the more incentive there is to participate. “Four or five times a year, we’d meet as a group and just be in a room where we spent full days together. We got to know each other well and build trust, because we not only talked about issues but had meals together. You can’t underestimate the value of that.” The opposite is also true: “A collaborative I was part of only met once a quarter for two hours. People didn’t see the value of participation vs. value of ‘just funding the effort’ because funders didn’t really get to know each other. For these things to work really well, you need a lot of funder engagement.”


  • What do you see as the most important factors in predicting success?
  • How many of these elements do you see reflected in your collaborative?
  • Are there other factors not mentioned here that you think are important contributors to a collaborative’s success? What makes them important?


Please click here for information on GrantCraft’s methodology for this research.

(Photo: Apollo Habtamu, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting

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