Nonprofits exist to execute a mission that serves a need as opposed to the commercial sector whose mission is to turn a profit on goods or services. That said, being a nonprofit does not mean being nonprofitable, in fact our sector relies on many more vehicles for sustainability than our profit driven counterparts. Whether the nonprofit has a membership, performs intermediary functions, produces research, or provides emergency services, cycles of fund development activity are always in play.

As a career fund development professional, I’m familiar with coalitions of funders who come together to fund topical needs like the Aspen Institute did around Opportunity Youth and the California Funders for Boys and Men of Color are doing around young men and boys of color. What about the converse – nonprofits collaborating for funding opportunities?

What is Collaborative Fundraising and Why Would a Nonprofit Do That?

Collaborative fundraising is when nonprofits apply jointly for a funding opportunity. There are several reasons why a hungry nonprofit would be willing to share the bounty from a potential award. The main reason organizations collaborate is to improve their competitiveness. It would be better to get 25% of a bazillion dollar, multi-year grant than to get nothing, right? Other reasons include: not being able to perform all required activities in the opportunity, funders requiring or giving preference points to organizations who partner, not being able to serve an entire geographic area, not having capacity to or expertise in all of the required areas, or simply not qualifying to be the lead applicant. Big funding opportunities also create the space for partnerships to be forged or strengthened as they have the potential to bring a diverse combination of organizations to the table who would not otherwise convene. Ad hoc collaboratives are also a good way to build trust with the community, your partners, and the funder.

While I’ve worked for agencies of county government where it was magically easy to convene partners around an opportunity or even a concept, most of my career has been in small, scrappy nonprofits where diverse convenings rarely happen organically. When you’re small and provide a distinct and discrete service, you have a value add that might be nuanced enough to get you to the table with some big players. Through the process, you may develop a powerful new ally and partner, regardless of the grant outcome. If your organization is prospecting a funder that has a pet nonprofit darling, partnering with that nonprofit on a funding opportunity may be a nuanced prospect strategy for angling in on that donor. Triple win.

Here’s a happy recent example. Urban Strategies Council has provided services throughout the five (or seven or nine…the number keeps changing) county Bay Area for much of our 30 years, however, we still have a reputation of serving only Oakland and Alameda County. With our recent leadership change came an emphasis on intentionally pitching or seeing work regionally, namely in south Alameda County and Contra Costa for starters. When an RFP to fund early childhood initiatives in seven high-needs census tracts was released by First 5 Alameda County, we homed in on the tract in South Hayward that is served by the Union City Kids’ Zone. The Council neither provides direct services, nor operates in the identified census tract, so we did not qualify to apply for multiple reasons. Since we respect the heck out of the work being done by the Kids’ Zone and knew their thinly stretched staff likely did not have capacity to write a competitive application, we offered to provide fund development technical assistance in exchange for being written into the grant as a primary partner. Not only was the Kids’ Zone among only four organizations awarded the highly competitive grant, but our two organizations established a new partnership where we’ll get to work together for the next three years. The Council did not qualify to apply for this opportunity, but by collaborating, we will receive funding for our research and fund development departments and more importantly we’ll have an opportunity to support service solutions in an extremely high-needs area of south county.

To learn how to initiate collaborative fundraising, look for part two of this series in an upcoming blog post or contact me at hilaryc@urbanstrategies.org.