The Foundation frequently invests in collaborative efforts of grantees and also collaborates with other funders to invest in a cause. Many experts in philanthropy have come to see collaboration as a higher form of grant making and non-profit activity. Philanthropists should join together to exert concerted effort on problems they cannot solve individually. Those grant makers who go their own way are described as “operating in silos” and are compared to “lone wolves.” Their ideas may be good but they cannot effect systemic change by themselves. The advantage of collective impact seems irresistible and most grant makers at least pay lip service to it, even if they do go their own way.
Pathways to Education, a Foundation grantee operating in Canada, illustrates the potential power of collaboration. Pathways has more than doubled high school graduation and college attendance rates for some of the poorest people in Canadian society. It has won international acclaim for its innovative approach and it is attracting interest and investment from educators, governments and the private sector across Canada.
The excitement over Pathways is hardly surprising. Generational poverty has been an intractable problem and the remedy is education. Once young people have had their eyes opened and their horizons broadened by education they will not go back to poverty. Educating poor people out of poverty has always been a difficult business. Pathways has an audience because it has developed a system that overcomes the usual obstacles and produces results.
At an operational level Pathways collaborates with teachers, education officials and boards, municipalities, volunteers and, of course, school children and their parents. It gets funding and support from the philanthropic and private sectors, individuals and different levels of government.
Pathways is a perfect example of collaboration as a higher form of problem solving. But is collaboration the secret to its success?
Pathways is a story of a vision and the development of a system to give effect to this vision and then the building of a business. The essential ingredients to Pathways’ success are vision and leadership. It is a familiar theme. A small group of people uniquely understand and care about a problem, in this case educating disadvantaged youth, and have the courage and ability to do something.
We do not downplay the importance of collaboration in the Pathways’ story. The vision for Pathways came from a community health center and from years of experience with diverse groups. Pathways has engaged and used a long list of people and organizations at every step along the way. Collaboration has been more than a tool. It has been a solution.
The lesson is not new but nonetheless needs remembering. The best philanthropic investments will always involve collaborations of different interests. But the essential ingredients are vision and leadership and not collaboration for its own sake.