Responsive Collaboration
setting the terms of engagement

Responsive collaborations are brought about when donors enter into partnerships that benefit a cause or community more effectively through working together than separately. These collaborations are responsive when they are sensitive to changes in the environment and in the circumstances of beneficiaries, and aim to navigate these shifts in order to achieve the best possible outcomes. In other words, responsive collaboration requires steadfastness in the pursuit of a common goal, yet flexibility in the process of achieving it.

Convening for collaboration Partnership funding Preserving memory, sharing knowledge




We must find ways to rise above the silos in which we have too often organised ourselves, and find new ways of working together.*
Gara La Marche, former President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies

Collaboration is not simply about working with other funding partners or grantee partners. It is in the how, in the nature of a partnership practice, that collaboration is put into effect. Strong collaborations have the potential to be greater than the sum of their parts, and call for a meeting of minds, values and practices around common objectives and vision.

Responsive partnerships require grantmakers, grantees and beneficiaries to work together to transform the landscape in which, and the relationships through which, they work. This requires partners to display flexibility when negotiating the gaps between a programme or project idea, its operationalisation in a given context, and its successful impact.

Collaboration in the world of donor funding, while not always formal, speaks to donor intent, strategy, approach and practice. Responsive collaboration in particular, requires a willingness to be open about agendas and transparent about vested interests. It relies on the ability to engage with the partners in the collaboration in equitable ways. This calls on donors to recognise the extent to which grantees are best placed to understand the context and thus arrive at the most appropriate modes of action.

The transaction between grantmaker and grantee automatically establishes a relationship of power. Whether acknowledged or not, this power dynamic has the potential for both negative and positive outcomes.

Conventional wisdom may see grantmakers as having more power by virtue of holding the purse strings. Grantees, however, are not powerless. In a responsive collaborative partnership all of the partners acknowledge that there are several points of power attached to money, knowledge, information and experience that give participants authority at different parts of the process. An authentic collaborative partnership recognises the value of those points of power and wields them to the advantage of transformative outcomes.

A relationship of responsive collaboration has the potential to go beyond the achievements of efficiencies of scale. This is because participants bring together blends of experience all of which contribute to the wealth of the collaboration. For funders focused on a social change agenda it is central to effective collaborative practice that working partnerships are as equitable as possible.

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Perspectives on Donor Collaboration

Responsive collaboration can prompt:

  • Philanthropic practices that adhere to principles of transparency, accountability, and responsible grantmaking
  • Philanthropists to be strategic and clear on goals and areas of investment interest
  • More equitable relationships between grantmakers and grantees
  • Attentativeness to local conditions and to the needs and priorities of grantee organisations
  • Partners to be open to setting aside pre-conceived notions of process, outcomes, success and evaluation, so as to jointly determine context-appropriate understandings of the operating environment and the impact sought
It’s about finding the right partners. Having funders that share a mutual vision and mutual interests leads to real collaboration. And finding partners that you have mutual interests with makes collaboration a lot easier.*


Collaborative practice also concerns the ways in which donors work amongst themselves around shared objectives so as to mutually reinforce their respective change agendas. Collaboration in grantmaking practice can positively influence donor strategy development, taking into consideration local conditions and dynamics. This in turn may improve the profile, efficacy and impact of donor partnership initiatives and the issues they seek to tackle.

Atlantic’s programming in South Africa placed a premium on collaborative relationships, both with grantees and with other donors, situating these at the centre of its grantmaking. Three modes through which this was put into action are through Convening for Collaboration, Partnership Funding, and Preserving and Sharing Knowledge.