What makes collaboration effective? And what doesn’t?

  • By Shari Silberstein , September 11, 2023

“I feel like I’m not alone.” This was shared repeatedly during my 10 months in the Change Leaders in Philanthropy Fellowship, a beautiful GEO learning community that wrapped up its fifth cohort in July. Being a part of this brilliant, passionate, joyful, and diverse group of foundation leaders was exactly the kind of connection I craved when puzzling through some of my toughest workplace challenges.

There are so many good reasons that grantmakers come together – for that sense of belonging and “being in it together,” to sharpen strategy (two heads are better than one), to have more impact through coordination, to ensure that the voices of those directly impacted by a problem are heard in the development of solutions, and more.

And yet there are legitimate concerns with funders’-only spaces – whether learning communities like GEO’s or grantmaking collaboratives. I spent more than two decades as a nonprofit founder, executive director, grantee, and grant-seeker before coming to philanthropy a couple of years ago. As a grantee, I saw funder collaboratives that turbo charged my movements and made incredible change possible. And I saw other examples that had little impact or even held things back. More recently, as a funder, I gained access to philanthropic learning communities and I’ve seen some of the things I feared about philanthropy, like deep condescension and mistrust of grantees.

The extraordinary experience of GEO’s Change Leaders got me thinking more about what happens when funders come together. When is it beneficial? When isn’t it? And what makes the difference?

Trust, Transparency, and Humility: Centering the grantee experience

The foundation I work for now, the Fund for Nonviolence (FNV), was a key partner of Equal Justice USA, the organization I founded and ran. As a grantee, I found FNV to be a deeply collaborative funder. I could be honest about my struggles and needs. FNV offered the same transparency in return. I wasn’t beholden to artificial timelines or grant periods that didn’t align with how I needed to spend money in the real world. And I was always asked – not told – what was needed to move the work forward. Now on the inside, my sense is that many of our other grantees feel the same way.

Attending to power dynamics

When FNV joined or created larger collaboratives, it was guided by those same trust-based values. An especially innovative example was a group that brought together a handful of grantmakers and two dozen movement folks from the criminal justice reform and crime victims’ advocacy fields. These were two movements that often viewed themselves at odds with each other, but a small group of advocates had identified the powerful common ground we shared. FNV heard the call from the field to deepen this thinking and stepped up to put a convening together. FNV formed a planning team of three grantmakers and four advocates (including me), and the seven of us generated a groundbreaking community that expanded to two years of convenings, a publication, countless new partnerships and projects, and new ways of working that have dramatically shifted the landscape around safety, healing, and justice.

The makeup of the planning team was a key element of FNV’s approach when building collaboratives: always attuned to power dynamics, they made sure that grantees outnumbered grantmakers. People of color and other people directly impacted by the issues were prioritized among participants. And while FNV took on the workload for scheduling meetings and keeping things moving, they took creative and strategic direction from the advocates. It’s been almost a decade since these convenings, and participants still talk about them and their impact.

Prioritizing the needs and wisdom of the field

A second model was a collaborative of grantmakers and movement leaders from the anti-death penalty movement. What started as a time-limited planning process organized by a group of grantmakers has evolved into a foundational structure for ensuring coordination between the movement and the funders – now in its 17th year! The process had lots of bumps, but everyone at the table, advocates and grantmakers alike, has been committed to learning, adjusting, and prioritizing the needs of the field. During early disagreements between grantmakers and advocates about what that looked like, FNV helped to play a liaison role, listening and slowing things down to build consensus where possible. The death penalty “funder table,” as it’s often called, has become a model of coordination for other movements. It stands apart because of the deep commitment on the part of the grantmakers to be partners in the movement, not managers with special power or authority. Grantmakers contribute key resources – funding, connections, and thought partnership – while taking their cues about strategy and priorities from those doing the work.

Both of these above examples from my time as a grantee were special because of the role grantmakers played alongside advocates. They brought humility, attention to power dynamics, and a genuine commitment to centering the wisdom of those doing the work. Our philanthropic partners were not passively deferential – they leaned in when they had questions and concerns, but they did so in a spirit of partnership, not power over.

Beware the grantmaker echo chamber

During my time as a grantee, I also saw philanthropic communities that didn’t include grantees, and sometimes those made me nervous. Those closed-door collectives were making decisions about strategy, backed up by huge amounts of money, that would affect our movements for years or more. This can be a downside of collaboration between grantmakers. There is a lot of power that comes with having funds to dole out, and it can be easy to believe that this money also makes you smarter, or more knowledgeable, about what is needed to create change. Now that I’m on the grantmaker side of the table, I see all the more how seductive that power can be!

Grantmakers with that orientation can fall into echo chambers of like-minded funders who think they know how to do the work better than the people on the front lines doing it. Then, when we come together to learn, share lessons, and do our own work, those attitudes come too. I remember one breakout group at a philanthropic conference (not GEO’s!) where a new grantmaker proudly shared her innovative new reporting requirements. They sounded so onerous to me, and out of touch with the needs of their grantees. Yet others in the room were taking notes and gaining ideas.

*Rooted in values *

GEO’s Change Leaders in Philanthropy was also a grantmaker-only learning space, yet it didn’t fall into those traps. Why? I believe the difference is the values that shape the community. Our fellowship was rooted in equity as a core value. We named and continuously revisited power dynamics and how power could be a tool for liberation or oppression. We kept the needs of communities served as the central motivation for making change in the philanthropic sector. Those values helped our space to stay connected to our humility and an orientation of being in service.


None of us are an island. This world needs large scale, generational transformation to create genuine equity, justice, well-being, and belonging for the people of color and other marginalized communities whose land and labor has been continuously stolen or abused to build our nation. We can’t imagine – no less achieve – that kind of change if we go it alone. Collaboration is essential, but not every collaboration is an effective way to reach the goal. If we are serious about equity and justice, then the philanthropic communities we build have to start with those values at the center, and our actions and attitudes must be guided by them.

Shari Silberstein

Chief Operating Officer

Shari Silberstein is the Chief Operating Officer at the Fund for Nonviolence. Shari’s focus is building organizational strategies, culture, and systems that will support the foundation and its grantees through a significant scale up and sunset of grantmaking in the coming years. Prior to joining the foundation in 2021, Shari was the founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to reimagine and transform the justice system. Shari’s perspective on philanthropy was shaped by more than 20 years asking for money, working with incredible grantmaking partners to grow from a teeny grassroots organization to a thriving movement leader.