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Discovery Days 2023: Session Three Recap - Collaboration for Greater Impact

Our 2023 learning series takes a different approach from past Discovery Days. Instead of exploring specific community needs and issues, our three sessions explore one aspect of grantmaking: impact. Impact Austin's Grant Review Committees (GRCs) regularly consider how to assess and compare intended outcomes and potential impacts among the dozens of grant applications received in each focus area. With that in mind, our 2023 theme developed.


Session One asked "How Do Nonprofits Measure Impact?" The recap and recording of Session One can be found here. Session Two dove deeper into data equity; the recap is here. With Session Three, we considered the power of collaboration to drive greater impact. Participants included:



The word “collaboration” can be used to describe many different types of individuals and organizations that are working together: from informal partnerships to fiscal sponsors to mergers. Can you tell us a bit more about how you and your organization view/define/work with collaboratives?


Karen: Austin Together is primarily focused on sustained collaboration with a more fundamental change to the approach taken to solving a problem. It's a long-term collaboration to preserve, expand, or improve services by working together. Austin Together does not drive collaboration themselves, rather they respond to and support the organizations' decisions to collaborate. Sustained collaboration can happen in a variety of ways along a continuum (see the colored diagram below). They are all opportunities to come together among nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government agencies. Working in sustained collaboration can create a fundamental change to the way a community problem might be solved.


Jenny: Much of her professional and volunteer experience has involved ecosystem building and bringing individuals together in collaboration. Sometimes this starts informally, putting people together to first consider how they might work together. This can be "messy" and time-consuming. Later this would involve a deeper dive, wherein organizations consider working together to solve a specific problem or address a specific issue. At this point a more formal structure evolves.


When considering collaboration, how is it determined who should be "in the room?"


Jenny/SVP Austin: SVP Austin's work with nonprofits are short-term engagements to assist with an organization's business-related issues, such as revenue generation or marketing strategy. Sometimes nonprofit advisory situations are one-to-one mentoring, but often SVP Austin will put together an advisory team of 2-3 community members to work with a nonprofit leader. These community members might bring different skillsets or perspectives with opportunities for unique synergies. SVP Austin's real asset is their human capital and ability to offer complementary skillsets in tandem with other organizations. Jenny gave the example of SVP Austin's pilot collaboration with Impact Austin: Impact Austin awarded grants to 2023 Community Partners, and SVP provides professional expertise to those same partners.


SVP Austin is also exploring (and actively learning about) a possible task force around workforce development in Central Texas. To this end, they are consulting with most or all of the organizations in this space and considering whether or not there is a role for SVP Austin to play as a convener or collaborator. In this process they ask: Who is working in what capacity? Where does it make sense to work together? Or does it make sense to get out of the way?


What is Austin Together's process in working with organizations?


Austin Together does not drive a collaboration. They have learned that successful collaborations happen when the organizations themselves pursue the connection and not when funders want to make them happen. Austin Together is responsive. Sometimes organizations know whom to collaborate with, but not always. Austin Together can help with introductions through their networks. Austin Together believes in dedicating a lot of time to answering why collaboration should happen, to what end, whether or not organizations are aligned with values, values, and goals Sometimes there isn't a good fit between organizations, and realizing that early on is, in itself, a kind of success. Austin Together provides three stages of grant support:

  • Exploration - This is the "why" stage, not the "how."

  • Planning - May include help with consultants (examples: finance, HR issues, or community engagement).

  • Implementation - The largest grant, where all the pieces come together.

Karen stated that collaboration needs a process; it isn't easy work. Jenny reiterated that collaboration can be messy, it's hard, it takes time, and it requires additional funding.


The slide below is from the Sustained Collaboration Network, to which Austin Together belongs. The Network includes 9 community-based funder collaboratives in Arizona, Austin, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. This displays the spectrum of collaborations.

What are some examples of successful collaborations you have facilitated?


Karen identified four projects that Austin Together has been involved with; these show different ways collaboration can increase impact.

  • United Way for Greater Austin merging with United Way of Williamson County - As Greater Austin has changed and grown, having individual United Ways so near to each other was no longer the best way to address regional issues. While tangible results are still developing, already there is greater impact, preserved services, fewer resources needed for back office and operations, and more money available for direct service. The merger took a solid year of planning and implementation. Austin Together will continue to follow them to assess the merger's impacts.

  • Keep Austin Fed and Save the Food - Both were food recovery organizations but with some differences: volunteer-run vs small staff, food from restaurants vs food from grocery stores, one group had transportation while the other had storage. This merger as Keep Austin Fed was completed just a few months ago, but already they have nearly doubled the food available.

  • Austin Together helped to incubate the African American Leadership Institute (before it became a full-blown nonprofit) with help from Leadership Austin and 212 Catalysts.

  • Maternal Health Equity Collaborative - 5 different organizations (including Impact Austin's 2020 Community Partner Black Mamas ATX), all of whom play a role in maternal health. Each organization will preserve its outward-facing brand, but they can share some back office resources, like accounting and human resources.

Jenny offered these examples of projects with which SVP Austin has been involved.

  • DivInc is an accelerator whose mission is to generate social and economic equity through entrepreneurship. Jenny was part of a collaboration that included DivInc, SVP Austin, and UT Austin. One of DivInc's cohorts was considering how to define their social impact metrics/how to measure the impact of the small businesses so that they might attract more investment. In this collaboration, each entrepreneur worked with two SVP Advisors and two UT students from their social impact program. SVPs brought in strategic guidance, and UT students brought in the quantitative piece. While this collaboration was short-term, it would offer long-term benefits to the entrepreneurs involved.

  • Little Bit of Good is a capacity-building accelerator program for Central Texas nonprofits, with a focus on Black-led or Black-serving nonprofits. SVP Advisors will be part of their four-month accelerator program.


How can individual donors help some of this collaborative work in our community?

  • Nicole explained that Impact Austin members are already involved to a small degree in this space: through collective giving; by staying involved with Community Partners as a volunteer or individual donor; and by serving on boards of Community Partners.

  • Jenny urged anyone in the audience who is not yet a member to join Impact Austin! The learning available to our members is so valuable! Also, Social Venture Partners is always looking for members who want to be of service. She emphasized the collective impact of both groups. She mentioned the term "pathological collaboration," wherein problems are so large that collaboration must happen.

  • Karen added that collaboration is about relationships and connections. A collective group like Impact Austin has developed relationships and connections with 91 Community Partners! When Karen was at Creative Action, one of her board members was also an Impact Austin member who was very engaged and influential within their organization. At Austin Together, they are always looking for Guides, who are paid a stipend. A Guide is a neutral third-party advisor without a vested interest in the outcome of a collaborative process.

  • The Culture of Collaboration Summit will be hosted by Austin Together on April 20 at the Long Center. About 150 people are expected to attend. Consider joining the event to hear about a variety of collaborations, gain inspiration, and learn tangible ways to apply collaboration within your organization.

  • Nicole revisited that connections can be a component of one's own philanthropy. When we consider time, treasure, talent, and ties - the "ties" can matter! If one's financial resources are limited, remember that ties/connections/referrals are also valuable.

What about data collection during collaboration? How does that happen, and what happens to the data after the period of collaboration?

  • Jenny admitted that data collection is sometimes a challenge, given that collaborating partners may come together with different data methodology already in place. Finding a way to aggregate that data is a serious consideration. She shared a story from her days with ANDE about the challenges of aggregating data.

  • Karen said that, while Austin Together has created some survey tools, "we're still trying to figure that out." It can take a long time to assess the results of collaboration, so they see a challenge in staying in touch long past the time of their own involvement with the collaboration in order to see the results (people served, dollars saved). They do have initial data, however. She mentioned a scenario wherein Texas Health Action absorbed a smaller Waterloo Counseling, which was otherwise likely to dissolve. Initial data showed that the waiting list at Waterloo was winnowed from 190+ to only 6, thanks to the efficiencies of the larger organization coming in.

As grantmakers, how can Impact Austin members consider the value in funding collaborations as compared with more traditional programs? Are there biases or mindsets that we, as funders, should overcome in this space?

  • Jenny observed that funding these efforts is "not as sexy." Collecting data or building systems is "harder to see" than serving a specific amount of people with a program. She urged that we be open to smaller organizations that currently lack systems and/or may not have the data to demonstrate the good work they're doing.

  • Karen urged an "openness to what you consider impact." She also urged that applicants and funders should add resources (financial, staffing) to add data collection as part of any program funded.

What is the difference between collaboration and collective impact efforts?

  • Karen explained that collective impact is on the spectrum of collaboration. Generally, collaboration may be a more evenly-spread coming together, and this is what Austin Together looks for. Collective impact efforts may involve one major actor, a "backbone organization," threading together smaller organizations. That is a kind of collaboration and it may be the right approach, unless the smaller organizations become invisible due to the larger backbone organization.

  • Jenny considered there are big-c Collaborations and small-c collaborations.


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