Together or alone. Those are fundamentally the two ways philanthropy is carried out all around the world. Each one has different objectives, interacts in distinct ways with grantees and other donors and, ultimately, values different things. In particular, there is one thing they value very differently –information.
The typical individual donor gives idiosyncratically, usually within a narrow domain of expertise or region of the world. It cherishes the freedom to choose whom to give to, values privacy, even anonymity, and often does not want any recognition for its giving – or for what that giving accomplishes. Most of the time, only the donor knows whether its giving achieved the goals it set out to accomplish in the first place.
Occasionally, perhaps because of ties to other donors or due to an event that brings them together, philanthropists build communities: groups of donors who share perspectives, tackle problems together and jointly finance activities where their interests and goals are already aligned. These communities arise when their members come to the realisation that what they want to achieve exceeds what they can accomplish by themselves: the benefits of being part of the community surpass what they have to give up to belong to it. These communities often disclose to what purpose and to whom they give, as a signal to other potential grantees of what they are looking for, and to build a reputation that carries this signal forward in time.
Even though working with other donors often entails a cost, perhaps giving up on one or more of the values that individually they treasure, communities of donors have emerged multiple times. The Open Philanthropy Project in the United States, 360Giving in the United Kingdom, Asociacion de Fundaciones Familiares y Empresariales in Colombia, among others, all embody an answer to the question, “What can we do together that we cannot do alone?” It is, therefore, of little surprise that these philanthropic communities also happen to be open and transparent – regularly sharing information with one another or anyone interested in their work. Why is that? Why do some, and not all, philanthropic communities emphasize sharing information and being more open? The answer rests on two things that foundations cannot do if they act alone: learn and partner.
Donors working in areas of economic, social and environmental development often tackle wicked problems: that is, challenges that don’t have a clear cut, simple solution and often involve complex social systems that interact with one another. Solving these problems requires exploration, testing and experimentation – a process of discovering a solution rather than just putting in place an existing one. In this space, having multiple and diverse attempts at tackling the problem can move the needle, as long as each attempt can avoid repeating the mistakes of others. The easiest way to do this is to communicate what they learn along the way: to track their path and make it know to others charting the same territory. In other words, to learn from each other.
This leads to the second reason, partnering. Donors are usually as free to give as they are to work with one another, and established donor communities habitually go beyond peer learning into co-financing common initiatives. Co-financing operations are becoming more common among donors, as trust between them builds through time and within the community. When co-financing partnerships arise, they allow donors to hedge, share risks and enter spaces that, alone, are probably outside of their purview. In these instances, partnerships have a tacit advantage in sharing risks and scaling something that already was found to work effectively. When Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, announced the donation of a third of his Square Inc. stock amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, he did so openly. Why? “It’s important to show my work so I and others can learn.” As of early July 2020, he has distributed USD 156 million, and 14% of that giving has involved collaboration with other donors who have added their own resources to joint initiatives.
Ultimately, information is valuable in donor communities because mutual awareness makes learning and partnering possible. This value stretches beyond each donor community, as opportunities to learn and partner also occur with members of other communities or individual donors looking to expand the scope of their work.
Donor communities who work closely together tend to be more open. If you want to work alone, share information if you can, and when you can. Others stand to learn from what you do. If, however, you want to join forces with other organisations that have similar interests and goals, and learn better from others who navigate the same complex space, be as generous with what you know as you are with what you give.