Managing a Funder Collaborative The Ford Foundation


"A great deal of learning among grantmakers has to do with breaking through theisolation we work in. Our primary work is with grant seekers and grantees. Often, we're alone with them, and with our thoughts."

 Ruth Brousseau, Director, Organizational Learning, The California Wellness Foundation

Like many grantmakers, you may be reluctant to discuss certain matters — such as how you make decisions, or work with grantees — with other practitioners. A belief that your situation is unique or otherwise irrelevant may lead you to work in isolation. Yet grantmakers face surprisingly similar strategic challenges, regardless of the size, scope, or focus of their organizations. Decision-making and relationship-building skills that have
worked for your colleagues are often transferable to your own area of expertise. You may even find, as others have, that sharing experiences provides valuable insights into the craft of grantmaking itself. One way of reducing isolation is by working collaboratively. Funders Collaborative is the story of a group of grantmakers who not only talked about their shared interests but also worked together towards a common and often daunting goal: promoting the certification of sustainable forestry in the $50 billion U.S. lumber industry. Their experience illustrates the problems collaborators may encounter and the process this group developed to find workable solutions.


A First Success
During her years in the Ford Foundation's Manila and Jakarta offices, grantmaker Fran Korten supported the development of a promising project. Nonprofit organizations working closely with forest managers, regional landowners, and the forest industry had developed a set of guidelines for the sustainability of forests. Timber produced and harvested by forest communities meeting these guidelines could be sold profitably as "certified" wood. In 1993, these groups, along with government and philanthropic organizations, formed the Forestry Stewardship Council — an early effort that was taken up in a number of countries in Europe and the global South. Since the council provided a coveted logo for products, it was well received by the forest industry. Because these products met a clear set of standards, it would satisfy the concerns of environmentalists. The later saw certification as an ecologically sound way of managing forests. The forest industry found that the council's logo increased its ability to negotiate sustainable prices with concerned consumers.

Replication: Bringing Certification to the U.S.
On her return to the United States in 1993, Korten hoped to support similar domestic projects, but soon found efforts here lagged behind the global movement. She began, however, to work with rural communities in forested areas, many of whom were experimenting with the idea of certification. Ultimately, Korten heard from Smartwood, a nonprofit organization that is part of the Rainforest Alliance. Smartwood had spearheaded the certification process in Indonesia and had been one of the first groups in the world to certify lumber. Korten's response to the group's request that she fund the initial meeting of a network of concerned organizations was an immediate "Yes." As she noted, "Smartwood named all the organizations I'd already been working with, plus a few others. They were willing to work in a very collaborative way."

Scaling Up: Considering a Collaboration
From her experience in Indonesia, Korten foresaw that the certification project, if launched, would be big. She also knew it was likely to outstrip the resources of her foundation. She would need help. She thus faced several key questions: Who else should be involved? Would they agree to work together? Would they consider funding for the project? How much money would the collaborative effort need? And, of course: What if the project didn't work?


Collaboration among grantmakers, especially when they're looking to solve difficult social problems, can seem like an obvious path to take — a likely result of shared interests and promising ideas. For many grantmakers, supporting collaborative efforts can be the most rewarding and exciting part of their work. Yet, the collaborative process raises a number of questions for grantmakers: Who else should be involved in the collaboration? How can I help it to succeed? How can I be sure this project is worth supporting? How much money will the collaborative effort need? How can I persuade my foundation to offer such an amount? What if the project doesn't work?

Ford Foundation grantmaker Fran Korten faced these questions when she was asked to fund the initial meeting of a network of organizations seeking to promote the certification of sustainable forestry in the United States. Among the group's biggest challenges was weaving its way between the U.S. timber industry and the environmental advocacy community. There were questions of how quickly or slowly to move, how to bring together such entrenched —and in some cases, big-budget — interests. Grantmakers facing their own challenges may benefit from the steps the grantmakers in Funders Collaborative took to solve these problems:

Find Grantmakers with Complimentary Interests
Korten was at first unsure about the possibility of collaborating with other funders. However,because she, by her own admission, "likes to collaborate," she invited a grantmaker from the Pew Charitable Trusts to an initial meeting of groups interested in certification. Her instinct that they might all learn from each other proved true. The Pew grantmaker asked those assembled if they intended to appeal to a small, select group of consumers or would they try to influence the mainstream methods by which U.S. timber is harvested? The group replied it would be "going for the big one." At that point, Korten thought "we were really going to need other partners." She began by talking with a number of other grantmakers who had funded similar issues. She learned that Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Michael Jenkins of the MacArthur Foundation were looking at the certification process from the demand side. The two grantmakers knew of a buyers' consortium in England, an organization primarily supported by the World Wildlife Fund, that worked with manufacturers and wholesalers to purchase and promote certified timber. Korten and Northrop became intrigued by the idea of supporting the creation of a similar group in the U.S.

Include Partners of Different Sizes, Scope, and Focus
"Some people were interested in markets and market-driven mechanisms," recalls Korten, "while others were oriented toward producers' issues. Others wanted to fund campaigns and advocacy. Our work had scope for all of that." As the Rockefeller Brothers Fund's Michael Northrop points out, "Often bigger foundations have a harder time moving as nimbly as some smaller and medium-sized funders. So the value of the smaller sums of funds in this enterprise was very important." As a result, timely responses from foundations that focused on specific geographic areas or thematic areas advanced the project at critical moments.

Use Task Forces to Keep Everyone Informed
Participating grantmakers, in this case, educated themselves on a variety of issues related to the certification project. In addition to meeting as whole, they formed a number of task forces that — through e-mail and occasional face-to-face conversations — independently studied specific topics. When a manufacturer in one state, for example, convinced the government to certify half a million acres of park land, the collaborative formed a task force on state certification to identify other such opportunities.

Reach Out to Others
As the funders continued to meet informally, they gradually extended invitations to other grantmakers, resource consultants, and even private companies that sold certified wood. As the group attracted the interest of a range of professionals working in the field of sustainable forestry, they became convinced of the project's potential — and of opportunities for funding. It was at this point, remembers Korten, as enthusiasm for the project grew, that "we really began to sense we just might be able to change this industry." The group's next task was to sustain the collaboration, and bring its plans to fruition.


The 35-40 organizations involved in the Funders Collaborative decided against a formal structure. Eventually, their meetings became semiannual events. Participants included grantmakers, representatives of nonprofit organizations and corporations, consultants, and key players in the field of forest certification. All those present provide different perspectives that help funders make better-informed decisions on their grantmaking strategies.
"We came together to review progress and explore possibilities that complement, rather than compete with, one another," noted Michael Conroy, who took over Korten's program portfolio following her tenure. In Funders Collaborative, regularly-scheduled collaborative meetings allowed members to: 

See the Big Picture
Semiannual conferences presented a comprehensive overview of the project. The group also invited practitioners and researchers to organize sessions on current issues and recent developments. As Bruce Cabrale, of the World Wildlife Fund, notes, "The meetings provided a good opportunity for the foundation community to get information firsthand from the people who were making it happen. The cross-fertilization was extremely powerful."

Create Trust and Candor
Lynn Lohr, Executive Director of the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, describes the candid atmosphere in which "there was a level of trust and an ability to get beyond people's defenses and fears." This allowed nonprofit organizations to be more forthcoming about their challenges and problems without fearing the consequences. Many grantmakers appreciate that candid exchanges help allow them to assess situations more accurately and respond with appropriate support.

Accelerate Your Learning Curve
Grantmakers new to a field often value meetings that help them learn of ongoing projectsand new opportunities. Grantmaker Pam Kohlberg notes that the "quality of discourse" found at the semiannual meetings of the Funders Collaborative is hard to find elsewhere in the grant-making community.

Promote Cooperation with Corporate Players
At meetings, grantmakers learn how to work with corporate players, some for the first time. They appreciated the participation of the representatives who, based on their corporate perspectives and experiences often made important suggestions that were key to the project's sustainability.

Expand the Partnership
Many participants found semiannual meetings to be an efficient way to meet with other practitioners. David Ford, president of the Certified Forest Products Council, explains: "For us to have to go out and sell our story to each of these funders separately takes time and money. It takes their time, as well. To be able to communicate to a group and create interaction and an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and direction is beneficial to the people they're supporting." To take further advantage of these opportunities, participants often make appointments for one-on-one follow-up meetings after the larger groups adjourn.

Coordinate Funding
At the end of the Funders Collaborative three-day meeting, grantmakers set aside time to consider 10-20 key challenges and address them one by one in private. These actionoriented sessions allow grantmakers to review existing needs in the field, and to discuss —in an atmosphere of trust and candor — what funding they might be able to contribute.

Participants in the Funders Collaborative identify a number of helpful ideas for sustaining a successful collaboration:

Have Fundable Ideas
"Some funders groups are like a seminar," points out the Ford Foundation's Fran Korten, an initial force behind the collaboration. "Our group very quickly moved to action. In the end, a program officer's job is to make grants. You have to use your foundation's resources to move an effort along."

Pay Attention to Leadership and Other Roles
A strong, flexible leader is important. Sometimes, a cheerleader is too. For example, Michael Northrop wrote memos to participants immediately after the informal meetings and conference calls. He summarized the opportunities and challenges emerging from conversations, and suggested additional methods of collaboration. Camilla Seth, Associate Program Officer, Surdna Foundation, observes that some of them members intentionally play different roles within the group. "Some play the role of skeptic and intentionally throw out difficult questions. Other funders keep the ball rolling and reminded people what they are committed to do."

Provide for Coordination
Michael Northrop arranged for one of the program associates of his own foundation to work exclusively for the Funders Collaborative. The associate arranged face-to-face meetings and conference calls, kept abreast of ongoing Task Force developments, and provided other support. As the collaborative meetings evolved gradually into semiannual events, the group also found an intermediary organization that would handle the logistics.

The Funders Collaborative identified and responded to needs in U.S. forestry certification with several specific accomplishments:

New Organizations
Grantmakers collected funds to create key organizations, among them the U.S. chapter of the Forestry Stewardship Council and the Certified Forest Products Council (a U.S. version of the English buyers' consortium). Grantmakers also helped identify appropriate persons to lead these organizations and provided them with needed support. According to Rockefeller Brothers Fund's Michael Northrop, "There are ten, maybe fifteen institutions that the foundation community actually went out and catalyzed or provided funding to. Along the way an amazing infrastructure of organizations has been built up that now drives the certification process forward in the U.S."

A Streamlined Approach
Grantmakers found ways to make grants in a more coordinated way. The Funders Collaborative collectively made grants for media campaigns developed jointly by the Forestry Stewardship Council and the Certified Forests Products Council. These grants not only encouraged collaboration between the two organizations, but also allowed them to target different groups. Consumers were made aware of the existence of certified forest products. Architects were told how to use them. Policy makers were reminded of the importance of certification in the management of forests.

Long-Term Commitments
Some projects — like promoting sustainably harvested woods — take a long time, often longer than a grantmaker's tenure in a foundation. Additionally, some foundations may change their focus. Corporations may therefore withhold their endorsement of a project out of fear that in six months or a year it will no longer exist. The stability of the Funders Collaborative reassured the corporate world, and consumers, that its support for certified lumber would continue for many years to come.

The Future of Certification
In seven years, the number of acres certified in the U.S. has increased from none to more than 50 million (in 2001). Five per cent of the world's forests are now under certification, and that  number is expected to double in another two years.


A not so obvious challenge to collaborative efforts is that grantmakers acting as a group no longer embrace their differences but develop a "too-unified" vision. When that happens, suggestions from the collaborative to grantee organizations may sound more like directions that they have no choice but to obey. One of the strengths of the nonprofit sector is its diversity. Korten emphasizes the importance of these multiple values and counsels grantmakers to be mindful of the fine line between "suggesting" and "dictating" in their relationships with grantees.