Let’s dive deeper into collaborative philanthropy

By Erika Sanchez Saez

To start this conversation, it’s very important to be clear about what we are calling collaborative philanthropy. Why? First, because collaboration, although fundamental, can easily become a cliché. Who will say that they are against collaboration? But from words to actions though – as usual –  there is a gap.

Second, because with this concept, we want to go deeper into a very specific kind of collaboration, related to philanthropic work and purpose. 

So, let’s begin thinking about what the main action of philanthropy is. What would you say?

If your answer is donation, bingo! That’s the idea: the main action that defines philanthropy is to give, donate, or make a grant. 

Therefore, when we are talking about collaborative philanthropy, we are talking about collaboration as the key element of those who are doing philanthropy with a strategic view.

The concept of collaborative philanthropy defines structures, architectures, formats, ways of collaborating to mobilise, coordinate and/or distribute financial resources, and to make donations or grants to address social and environmental public challenges.

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To build a common understanding and promote collaborative philanthropy to achieve transformative impact, GIFE decided to develop research and a book about this topic called Collaborative Philanthropy1. Based on the research, we found 3 categories of reasons (or windows - as we called them) to increase and improve collaboration in philanthropy2:

- Reasons from the big picture: to respond to challenges in a complex world.

- Reasons of the philanthropic field: to deal with the limitations of philanthropic action.

- Reasons to improve positioning and internal abilities of foundations: foundations and other philanthropic organisations can benefit in many ways by improving collaboration as part of their strategies.

The publication also brings a mapping of different types of collaborative philanthropy in practice and Brazilian and international cases that illustrate these arrangements. The image below provides details and examples.

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Including collaborative philanthropy in our mindset

We also found that the main challenges of collaborative philanthropy are in its practice as a strategy. This happens because, to practice collaborative philanthropy, we must change (sometimes radically) the way our organisations are structured. There has to be a change towards a systemic, and therefore, more complex view, which requires from us other tools, abilities, and worldviews. It’s a change of paradigm. 

And a paradigm change involves a process change. 

No organisation or person will start acting by collaborative philanthropy principles out of the blue. So, to not fall at the last hurdle, it is essential to include the debate about collaborative philanthropy in a very conscious way, discussing it in strategic planning and taking this conversation to all governance levels.

This process can be challenging. I’ve heard many stories about things that went wrong that pushed collaboration backwards and many others doing the opposite. Last year something happened that pushed us towards collaboration. I finished writing the Collaborative Philanthropy book in March of 2020, and as you all know, there was a global pandemic that forced us to change our behaviours in almost every dimension. From then until March 2021, I was also in charge of the coordination of emergency initiatives of GIFE, and it was fascinating to see what happened in the field of philanthropy. It's safe to say that, globally, philanthropy’s response was very significant in terms of money, but also in expertise, in human resources, in articulation, and collaboration. 

We saw many foundations trying to solve a problem with an urgency never before seen. It seemed obvious that the most effective way to do that was collaborating and including the use of strategies, formats, and structures of collaborative philanthropy. It required us to address all the challenges that collaboration usually brings, but, as we were in a hurry and had a common purpose, overcoming them was much easier than before the pandemic. Collaboration can be seen as a positive legacy from the pandemic response experience in the philanthropic field.

In fact, philanthropy organisations prioritised collective action by being more (sometimes much more) flexible regarding their internal procedures, giving up control, taking decisions in 24 hours, trusting grantees (more than usual) and giving them autonomy. The GIFE publication that followed the Collaborative Philanthropy book analysed the action of philanthropy in Brazil in response to the Covid-19 emergency, and collaboration was an important part of this story3.

Moving forward with collaborative philanthropy

Now, the main question is: are we able to work with the same urgency towards a more just world that engages us in a similar way that the pandemic did? Maybe this is not feasible, considering the global magnitude of the pandemic and the diversity of causes we want to address, but it can be possible for organisations, civil society, and foundations that work for the same goal, to join forces and achieve progress by following the principles of collaborative philanthropy.

My answer to this question is that we will and should walk in the direction of collaborative philanthropy, but once we end our emergency mode, we will probably go slower. I also think that simply doing philanthropy as usual (like we did before the pandemic) isn’t the smartest thing to do. This means that we must now invest time and energy co-creating collaborative philanthropy formats and being more collaborative in every way we can.

Our current situation reminds me of a short paragraph of Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: “…humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozens of individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve”. Let’s help nature and put more intention into working together! 


1. The book Collaborative Philanthropy can be found here in Portuguese, and  an executive summary in English and can be accessed here at Sinapse – GIFE’s virtual library

2. Find the extensive list here

3. Philanthropy and social investment in the pandemic: answers, lessons learned and reflections on the future – is available in Portuguese and can be accessed here


Erika Sanchez Saez

Erika Sanchez Saez is a researcher, author of the book Collaborative Philanthropy, organiser of the book Horizons and Priorities for Philanthropy and Social Investment in Brazil published by GIFE, member of the Leading Committee of the Movement for a Culture of Giving in Brazil and Executive Director of Instituto ACP, which works to strengthen civil society organisations in Brazil.

She has a degree in Social Communication from ESPM, a postgraduate degree in Globalization and World Governance and Systems from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and a master’s degree in Cooperation, Globalization and Development from the University of Barcelona.

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