Funders & The Collaboration Conundrum

Recent conversations have surfaced a very peculiar dynamic in communities. This dynamic, strongly supported by many funders, calls for "more collaboration" which effectively constrains community engagement and innovation even as funders give lip service to both. The dynamic gets expressed in relatively innocent yet deceptive ways. Someone familiar or new to the community proposes they want to do something in and for the community, like starting up a new school, program, service or business. This is met with sharp and quick rejection with the argument that "We already have ..." one of those, or too many of those. The argument's flaw occurs when the community still has demand that exceeds current capacity to deliver on them.

Funders who get anxious in the face of complexity call for more "collaboration" as an antidote to their confusion over funding competitive efforts.

Granted, communities will benefit in many cases where people collaborate rather than compete. The research has clearly indicated that competition does not guarantee quality, efficiency or innovation. At the same time, communities gain when new enterprises and efforts emerge to take different approaches to similar needs.

This conundrum is a call for a reinvention of how we think of philanthropy in communities. I have been suggesting that funders fund investments in new enterprises and efforts to start or buy new small businesses that can sustainably fund their proposed new efforts. It is no more risky than funding anything that would otherwise disappear the day funding has to be cut because of economic realities beyond anyone's control.