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Putting Buzzwords to Practice: How to Build a Sustainable Collaborative

Friday, May 10, 2019

Allyson Goldhagen, Philanthropy New YorkBy Allyson Goldhagen, Director of Member Services, Philanthropy New York. This post originally appeared on Philanthropy New York's blog

In the philanthropic sector, we often get lost in the latest buzzwords about how to rethink our strategies and maximize impact, individually and collectively. Over the last couple of years, the buzzword of the moment has been collaboration and building collaboratives – a collective of organizations or individuals that work together to create something stronger than what they could produce alone. Talking about this is easier than putting it into practice because collaboration requires trust, varying levels and types of expertise and centrally organized management, all of which require a long-term investment of time and resources.

Philanthropy New York is an active member of the Knowledge Management (KM) Collaborative, a more than a decade-long technology collaborative managed by United Philanthropy Forum. Since PNY joined the collaborative as a founding member, the group has grown from five organizations to 32. At its core, the collaborative supports each member in the development and improvement of our respective membership databases and websites. However, what has been so exciting to see is how the network has not just generated technology capacity but also enabled us to build smarter and stronger philanthropic support organizations through our discussions and partnerships. Since the collaborative originated, organizations and individuals have continuously supported each other’s learning and creativity, and from that we regularly develop new automation and functionality together.

The KM Collaborative is successful not just because of the content of the work but also because of the trust that exists between the members – and with the funders who have supported the work. Foundations demonstrated trust is us by providing flexible funding and by understanding when timelines needed to shift, as is often the case with technology projects. Flexible funding allowed the KM Collaborative to develop its capacity organically and on a timeline that made sense for the work. It also allowed us to dream big and wide, both as a collective and as individual members of the collaborative.

For a collaborative to succeed, it is imperative to have the right people at the table. Who are the right people? What I have seen through the KM Collaborative is that successful collaboratives need a diversity of opinions and roles at the table. Just as critically, you need to dedicate time to getting comfortable working together. Even though this is a technology-focused project, not all members of the collaborative have, or even need, technical expertise. We are open to each other’s ideas, questions and projects that organically arise from different organizations working together. This has allowed us to find our niches in our skills, strategic vision, abilities and creativity.

None of this would be possible without a central body managing how we organize, collaborate and push our projects forward. With consistent support from United Philanthropy Forum staff, we have been able to sustain our community, update our systems and expand the project. Having someone at the center of our collaborative – to keep partners on track and remind the group of goals and logistics – has enabled us to discuss our priorities as individual organizations, identify areas of overlap and build new technology solutions, all of which strengthens each organization’s strategy and operations.

To truly collaborate, a small idea can grow into something remarkable with passion, dedication and organization. I’ve seen this as the KM Collaborative shifted from a project between organizations to become a network beyond what was originally imagined.

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