18 December 2023

Collaborative philanthropy requires discomfort, so why do we keep it up?

Collaboration has surged in popularity and has embarked on a new era marked by an increased ambition. It has established itself as a practice shared by many individuals, peer-groups, and organisations. The rise of a collaborative culture has generated new work cultures with different management approaches and workplaces. It has defined novel ways of producing knowledge and learning by nurturing reciprocity and collective intelligence.

Collaboration has helped in deconstructing hierarchy, colonialism, ethnocentrism, while questioning power balances. It lies at the heart of new ways of imagining, designing, creating, funding, and delivering products and processes. Collaboration has been enabled in so many ways by emerging technologies generating as a result new applications, services, and a sharing economy.

Philanthropy has not been spared by this trend. Research shows that over the past decade, there has been a rise in collaborative philanthropy which has led to shifting practices, experimentation, an increased focus on funding systemic issues and racial justice, as well as more diverse leadership. Yet the path that leads to collaboration is bumpy and often uncomfortable, so why do we persevere?

In Philea’s recent annual membership survey, a significant 68% of responders said that the most relevant and useful benefit of being part of Philea lies in the participation in and collaboration with its thematic networks, where members that come together around specific topics. At Philea, over 90 representatives from approximately 65 member organisations are actively engaged in the governance of the 14 thematic networks, coming together on a regular basis to develop annual programmes for the broader community, meaning that over 90 individuals – in addition to their daily work and private lives – dedicate their time, experience, and the organisation’s financial resources to shape enriching engagement opportunities for other members and the wider philanthropic community.

At a time in which we are experiencing the “philanthropy paradox” (in the words of Rien Van Gendt), collaboration amongst foundations cannot be taken for granted: philanthropy is more visible, hence potentially more exposed to new forms of partnerships, while on the other hand is increasingly under scrutiny, meaning that well-thought-through collaborations could be a way of tackling rising criticisms from an intrinsic perspective rather an instrumental one.

Collaboration amongst foundations must regularly undergo a temperature check in terms of purposes, composition (diversity, power dynamics, inclusivity), disruptive trends (such as the pandemic), enabling technologies, etc.  

 Philea has a strong legacy of supporting collaboration through thematic networks. Here are some of the lessons we have learned throughout the years: 

  • Collaboration is messy, it can be uncomfortable… and that’s okay. The willingness to go beyond the discomfort is what makes successful collaborations even more powerful:). 
  • There has been a shift of purposes and approaches to collaboration. If collaboration is the daily bread and butter of a membership organisation such as Philea, trust is the yeast that raises collaboration to the next level.
  • Peer-learning is becoming a rising purpose that motivates participation across the networks with the aim of advancing the transformative agenda of philanthropic practices.
  • Collaboration requires curation and feeds into effective collaboration skills. Striking a balance between fluidity and formality is not an easy endeavor. Collaboration is made of people as well as institutions, and we know how diverse the philanthropy sector is.
  • A fast onboarding and rapid incubation of funders’ collaboratives is a chimera: appetite for collaboration grows with trust, trust requires mutual understanding, and the latter needs time.
  • The caveat is that there is such a thing as the paradox of collaboration. Effective collaboration requires time, dedication, and patience – critical resources that some organisations may feel they simply don’t have.

If you would like to know more about Philea’s thematic collaborations, please get in touch!


Ilaria d’Auria
Head of Programmes, Thematic Collaborations