Five essential ingredients for lasting collaborations

By: Jan Owen AM   |   Foundation for Young Australians

Sometimes art and life meet and mix. I was about to head off and get married to the same man for a second time (another story for another time!) when I said in an interview: “In philanthropy, collaboration is the equivalent of finding true love - rare, never to be taken for granted, and needing constant investment and recommitment.”

So was I just all loved up and mixing my metaphors or is there something in this?

For all that we talk up philanthropy it is still a relatively small part of the overall funding pie. We could argue there is still too much diversity and fragmentation in philanthropy for it to have any real impact on sustained, systemic change. On the other hand, philanthropy is an essential disruptor and early adopter, investing in backing and proving innovation ready for government and others to take to scale. Philanthropic collaborations are a powerful lever for the multiplier effect, to ensure the best return on a philanthropic investment and hasten the spread of both risk and reward.

At FYA, I would describe our key philanthropic partnerships with the Allan English Foundation and the Myer Foundation to name a few, as deep and abiding relationships. They span generations in that we have relationships with parents, their children and sometimes even the grandchildren. 

So how is a great philanthropic collaboration like true love? 

There are five things that come to mind from my experience on both sides of this metaphor ....

  1. The best relationships are co-designed. In the flush of new and young relationships we tend to acquiesce to the other but long term relationships only truly survive if there are shared interests, projects and destinations. 
  2. You need more than chemistry to last the distance. There's nothing like that urgent longing to spend every minute with your new love, forsaking all others, including your (variously offended!) best friends, but the research is in, the honeymoon period lasts two to three years. Thereafter, values drive relationship and your ability to like, trust, respect and believe each other becomes paramount. 
  3. Standing by each other, failing together, succeeding together. Like a relationship, collaborations will be tested. Our appetite for risk, failure, learning: #flearning and starting again must be of equal measure but not equal. In a relationship people have different strengths which make them more than the sum of their parts. So too in collaborations.
  4. Frank and fearless communication. I heard a long time church leader asked in an interview recently, 'when did you become a Christian? '. He answered, 'this morning'. Collaboration, like love, needs constant reflection, reinvestment and recommitment. This only happens if you can talk to each other - not just for the beginning (which may be pleasant or heated) of the conversation but all the way through to the other side. This takes enormous skill in relationships of all kinds. A key sign of any good relationship is the willingness to stay in difficult conversations.
  5. We are forced to be "we" rather than "I" squared. The undertaking and completion of a successful project, long trip, or the birth of a child or grandchild, the loss of someone close - brings into sharp focus why we are together. Why we make sense. So too in philanthropic collaborations. It doesn't mean you will always be together (see my opening para!) but it does mean you have an irrefutable and shared history which lays the ground work for future collaborations, referrals and new opportunities ahead. 

Ok, it's a long bow, and a bit of fun, to compare philanthropy - the love of humanity - with true love. Or is it? Emotionally we want to join with others and intellectually we know we must. There are plenty of examples of philanthropic collaboration and investment which are a true coming together of hearts, minds and funds. Sure you might have to kiss a few frogs or swipe left and right a few times but when you finally find 'the one' hang in there for the journey a lifetime! 

Apr. 19, 2016

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