The real power of foundations

When people think of foundations, they think about money (or, you know, building construction, if that’s their thing). After all, foundations are sources of funding for a nonprofit sector full of organizations strapped for cash. And being such resource-rich institutions, foundations wield a lot of power.

However, the real power of foundations isn’t their assets. Sure, being able to support good causes – on their own terms, no less – gives them a lot of power. But it also affords them something far more powerful: a voice.

Because foundations have resources that they can invest, they can more easily get a seat at the table. They can get meetings with those that a small nonprofit may not have the clout to attract. And they can bring together parties that might otherwise ignore each other.

See, the real power of foundations these days is the power to convene. In an increasingly networked world, many still put up walls, bury their heads in the sand, and fail to effectively reach out to others. But the problems that we’re working to solve are big, complex, and messy. They can’t be solved alone, and they can’t be solved by fighting others. We need to work together if we’re going to make a real difference. We need to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate. And that all starts with communicating – actually sitting down to talk things through, testing assumptions and forming real relationships, finding points of agreement and points of contention, identifying opportunities to work together and opportunities to divide and conquer. No organization is an island, and we can achieve more if more work together on the same problem.

So if foundations want to really create some significant change, they should leverage their power to convene. Their grantees will benefit from learning about others’ work and perspectives. Stakeholders will benefit from a broader view of the issue and sharing ideas about how to move forward. And foundations themselves can learn in ways that will improve their own strategies. Plus, since they often work across the system, foundations are also best suited for identifying those who would benefit from coordination or collaboration. (And if polite suggestion doesn’t work, they can always incentivize people will a grant, right?)

Working in a nonprofit organization, it’s easy to get lost in your own work and lose sight of the bigger picture. Some organizations manage to work well with others on their projects, but even then, it is often with a narrow cluster of actors, with many others left out of the picture. If foundations want to effectively solve problems, they need to do more than just dole out funds. They need to facilitate greater communication, coordination, and collaboration among the different stakeholders in the issues they’re tackling.

Throwing money at a problem may help, but a foundation’s greatest asset is its power to convene.

Does your foundation leverage its power to convene? Have you been invited by a funder to a grantee or stakeholder convening? What are the benefits of such convenings? How can they be improved so convenings are more effective?

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About Eric B. Jacobson

Writer, storyteller, and pop culture enthusiast
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