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Partnerships in Philanthropy

September 19, 2011

There’s been a lot written about “partnerships” in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors over the years. I don’t have space to reflect on all that research and writing here, but as we launch our Partners in Preservation program in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul this week, I’ve been thinking about a session that I attended during the Council on Foundations annual conference last spring that centered on partnerships between foundations, corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Based on four case studies, the session identified six different types of partnerships from those with a relatively low level of effort to those with a high level of impact. These types are:

  • Information sharing (like minded funders form a group to exchange information)
  • Co-learning (funders commission research on a common problem or issue)
  • Matching grants (a funder offers a grant with the intent that it would attract other donors)
  • Joint funding (funders co-invest or jointly fund an organization or project)
  • Pooled funding (funders contribute to a collective fund that is administered by a third party)
  • Collective impact (funders and partners share a common goal with a clear set of metrics)

We’ve engaged in all of these types of partnerships here at American Express. We’re often sharing information with other funders who are working in the same thematic areas that we are. One example is our ongoing information exchange with the Annie Casey Foundation in Baltimore, one of the few private foundations that have leadership development as a giving priority.

We have co-commissioned research on the future of emerging leaders in the nonprofit sector with the Center for Creative Leadership (this research is being collated now and will be released to the public this fall) and Bridgespan Group (this research was an update to the widely circulated “Leadership Gap” study that showed how many positions will be open in the nonprofit sector in the next ten years as baby boomers retire). We often make matching grants where we encourage other funders to join us. And, we have numerous examples of organizations and projects that we have decided to co-fund with other foundations.

For examples of collective impact (or what I would call strategic partnerships), one can’t beat our longstanding partnerships with the World Monuments Fund (for the Watch List and Sustainable Tourism Initiative) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (for Partners in Preservation), which help restore and bring public attention to hundreds of historic sites throughout the world that were (or still are) in danger of being lost, and the Center for Creative Leadership and Common Purpose UK for the creation and execution of American Express Leadership Academy in New York, London and Delhi, India.

These partnerships are unique in that we jointly created and manage these programs with our partners. Each of us has shared responsibility for certain aspects of these programs, and both of us are held accountable for the results. Although we weren’t asked to present these case studies at this conference, these partnerships have been highlighted in the philanthropy world as examples of strategic partnerships that really work. We’re proud of these efforts and hope to be in a position of designing and executing more programs like these in the future.

If you have any thoughts about what makes a good strategic partnership, let us know here.

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