Convening for Collaboration
A key mechanism for collaboration is convening. This refers to the process whereby donors use their leverage as convening agents in order to bring diverse stakeholders together and to develop platforms for collaboration. The call for a meeting of minds around common objectives and visions can enhance the visibility of issues that donors and/or grantees are working to address by engaging around a shared agenda.
There is a very fine line between forcing collaborations and letting collaborations evolve organically* .
The urgency and complexity of the problems nonprofits and grantmakers are trying to solve demands that we come together to exchange knowledge and insights from our work and combine resources. Convenings are powerful vehicles for amassing shared knowledge, building trusting relationships and laying the groundwork for collective action.*
Convenings, whether between donors, grantees or a mix of both, provide space to:
- Share insights, learnings and ideas
- Discuss and jointly plan responses to issues of mutual concern
- Recognise and engage with others working on related issues
- Develop inter-organisational collaborations and build networks and alliances
As convenors, donors need to be clear about the intent, aims and objectives of their convening activities. Often convenings are organised in relation to donor strategies and programmes, rather than being informed by grantee needs and agendas.
Donors might bring grantees together around a particular issue or granting stream. Alternatively, they might convene organisations working in a specific location, or at a local, national or regional level. Funders are increasingly convening grantees on a formal and regular basis around specific issues or topics. Such forums provide learning opportunities for both the donor and its grantees, and can facilitate constructive critiques of both donor and grantee strategies for change.
In regard to convening, as a collaborative practice, convenors should engage with those they seek to convene in determining the form and content of the engagement. By ensuring a more engaged and responsive approach to grantee convening, donors can begin to address some of the power dynamics inherent in identification and setting of grantmaking priorities.
There are a great number of resources on collaborative practice27 amongst donors and grantseekers. Many of these focus on convening 28as a mechanism for transformative collaborations that are geared to tackle systemic barriers and boundaries between grantmakers and grantseekers. Useful pointers on the approaches, and practices, of convening include, amongst others, that convenings are:
- Gatherings at which the attendees are participants in a collective effort that serves a specific and shared purpose
- Composed of diverse stakeholders who represent a range of perspectives on a topic, often from different organisations
- For accomplishing a clear purpose (e.g. drive toward decision-making or alignment) and intended outcomes
- Designed to draw on all participants to generate insight and action beyond what any single actor could achieve on his or her own
Key steps in planning a convening:
- Decide whether a convening is the right tool for a particular situation or point in time
- Identify your convening’s driving purpose
- Determine whether the purpose/opportunity can be clearly articulated
- Assess whether the purpose/opportunity calls for collective intelligence
- Decide whether the issue is at the right stage for a convening to result in measurable progress
- Assess whether the critical stakeholders can be assembled
- Define how co-creative you want the process to be, bearing in mind the value of consultative processes between grantmakers and their grantees
When we convene our partnerships we need to recognise that some people have social capital and others have technical skills – and not get so focused on the power of people who have the purse.*
The power of collaboration has always been when it is organic. Collaborations fail most often when they are donor driven.*
Convenings reflect donor efforts to develop a more collaborative frame for working with particular groups of grantees. The convening of donor-specific grantees is seen by some funders as a way to amplify their funding impact, and to leverage the experience of particular grantees through peer-learning forums. While expensive to implement, and time-consuming to plan, such convenings can energise an issue and facilitate communication amongst organisations working in the same or related fields.
Convening for the sake of learning, for strengthening the [non-profit] sector and for building cross-sector coalitions for advocacy purposes is the way to go.*
I think NGOs have also got to collaborate together. What we have done at Pro Bono is to develop a deep collaboration with some community advice offices where we have raised funding for them and manage that in line with our programme. NGOs can bring less capacitated and more grassroots organisations they are working with into the donor circle.*
With grantee convenings, participating organisations frequently approach the space with different, sometimes conflicting, agendas. A donor may see the goal of a convening as learning about grantee operations and challenges, or about the sector as a whole and the issues on which grantees are focused.
Grantees, on the other hand, might convene to problem solve and share ideas or solutions, to engage peers on challenges in the field, or to seek out opportunities for collaborative projects.
Increasingly, donors need to be wary of over-convening in a way that becomes burdensome to non-profit organisations, who are often called to multiple convenings by different donors around topics and trainings that aren’t necessarily of their choosing. In addition, donor-driven convenings that concentrate on particular sectors or organisations can serve to exclude those roleplayers who are not grantees of the convening donor, thus privileging some organisations within a wider field of organising.
A number of funders operating in South Africa convene grantees in the interests of capacity development, knowledge sharing and programme strategising. Examples include:
- The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation brings grantees together around its own grantmaking practice, and around issues of shared interest (such as, for example, communication practice in non-profits)
- The Kresge Foundation regularly convenes its grantees in the higher education sector for peer-learning, skills development and capacity-building in Advancement
- The Raith Foundation has convened specialist groups around organisational monitoring and evaluation as well as organisational theories of change
- The Other Foundation, funded with both operational and challenge grant funding from Atlantic, makes explicit its role in connecting diverse parts of the LGBTI community in that it “acts as a bridge-builder and an enabler to unlock the skills and resources (non-monetary included) and directs them towards community-defined priorities.”
While Atlantic focused on convening its South African grantee clusters through regular peer-learning meetings, it also adopted different strategies for each grant sector.
Such convenings included national gatherings of organisations working in the LGBTI sector through the establishment of the Joint Working Group, a forum of Atlantic-funded grantees. Atlantic also convened grantee clusters within its Reconciliation and Human Rights programme to discuss the funder’s then pending exit, and to identify possible donor responses to support the future sustainability of grantee clusters. In addition, it supported numerous capacity development initiatives, including two multi-year programmes29aimed at strengthening its grantees’ abilities to increase and diversify their financial resourcing into the future.
As Gara la Marche, former President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies30, explains it: “We try to build communities of grantees in these clusters and provide them with regular opportunities for convening exchange, and our external evaluators meet with Atlantic teams and grantees biannually.”
As an international funder, Atlantic was also able to convene grantees from different geographies working on similar issues. An example of this is an exchange between LGBT activists from Ireland and South Africa, held in Cape Town in 2010, in order to critically reflect on LGBTI activism in both countries over the previous 15 years. Atlantic also brought together social actors around particular strategies for change. One example is a convening of organisations from South Africa, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and the USA, in 2011, to critically discuss the role of public interest litigation in advancing social justice.
The practice of convening amongst and between donors is on the increase globally. Similarly, donors in South Africa are realising the value of convenings as peers around the practices and challenges of grantmaking, as well as in relation to their programme objectives and strategies in the context. Atlantic-supported a number of important donor convenings including the Our World Our Responsibility (OWOR) Philanthropy Conference in 2010.
According to Shelagh Gastrow, Founder and former Director of Inyathelo, “The Our World Our Responsibility donor conference … grew out of a commitment by The Atlantic Philanthropies to bring together a small grouping of international donors to take stock of their activities in South Africa and to explore ways of co-operating … As the concept developed and we explored a possible agenda, it became evident that this was a window of opportunity to raise a number of fundamental issues about philanthropy in South Africa”.31
While initiated by Atlantic, the conference was co-funded by a partnership of Foundations that included The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Claude Leon Foundation [www.leonfoundation.co.za] and the BoE Private Clients Philanthropy Office (now Nedbank Private Wealth).
With a focus on creating a platform of engagement for local philanthropists, the OWOR conference initiated a wider conversation about philanthropy and effective grantmaking practice in the South Africa context.
Significantly, it saw the establishment of a forum for South African private philanthropy. This forum, the first of its kind in South Africa, grew out of the intention to form a private philanthropy circle amongst confernece delegates, who wished to form a wider collective.
Providing a regular and structured forum for South African philanthropists, the initiative marked a turning point for certain local Foundations and big ticket donors who, until that time, had operated largely under the radar. Initially known as the Private Philanthropy Circle, this convening forum attracted more than 45 members and has now formalised itself as the Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa.
There will always be an ongoing struggle to hold both public and private power to account, and the only way in which we can use what we currently have, which is this massive asset of civil society in South Africa, and to use that properly and effectively, is for donors to work together.*
Fatima Hassan, Executive Director, Open Society Foundation for South Africa