Earlier today, Monitor Institute and the Foundation Center released a new report called Harnessing Collaborative Technologies: Helping Funders Work Together Better. As part of the research, we looked at more than 170 different technological tools now available to funders, dove deeply into the literature on philanthropic collaboration, analyzed the results of recent Foundation Center surveys, and spoke with a wide range of experts from the worlds of both technology and philanthropy.
The report’s main headlines won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone: (1) more than ever before, funders are recognizing that they will need to collaborate to effectively to address the complex, intractable problems that we now face, and (2) new technologies—from simple group scheduling tools to comprehensive online collaboration workspaces—are now available to help facilitate the often challenging process of working together.
But there’s a deeper story beneath the headlines: about how these emerging technologies are enabling new types collaborations that weren’t possible (or at least much were more difficult) just a few years ago.
While much of the talk about collaboration these days centers on large, formal “collective impact” initiatives and “needle-moving” collaboratives, these types of highly intensive collaborative approaches aren’t necessarily right for all funders, all situations, and all purposes. In some cases, funders are simply looking to learn together. In others, they’re just aiming to understand the broader ecosystem of activity so they can act independently but still align their efforts with those of others.
New technologies are changing the playing field and making it cheaper and easier than ever before to facilitate these different types of “lower-intensity” collaborative activities. New collaborative platforms are helping funders share files and information, and can provide important forums for ongoing dialogue and conversation. Online project management systems are streamlining processes for coordinating and aligning action. And new tools for aggregating data and visualizing information now allow funders to see the larger funding landscape that they are a part of in new ways.
These simpler, technology-facilitated collaborative activities may not yield the outsized results of more complex, formal efforts, but they often produce very real improvements and outcomes, while also helping to build relationships and momentum that can build towards higher-intensity efforts.
The Harnessing Collaborative Technologies report helps readers make sense of the dizzying array of technologies that are now available to help those engaged in both low- and high-intensity collaborations by parsing the different collaborative needs of funders. How can new tools help funders learn and get smarter about the issues they care about? How can the technologies help you find and connect with potential partners? How can they help you transact business together? Which technologies can help you assess collective progress and measure outcomes? The report encourages funders to start with these collaborative needs rather than with the technologies themselves, to ensure that solutions fit the wants, requirements, and limitations of users.
Harnessing Collaborative Technologies also provides a set of principles that offer guidance for tool developers and funders about how to make thoughtful choices when investing in the creation and adaptation of new tools that facilitate collaborative work.
By getting smarter about how we develop and use these collaborative tools, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of the “friction in the system” that has made working together—even in lower intensity ways—difficult until now. And in doing so, we can ease the path to collaboration and help aggregate resources and effort that can match the scale of the problems we now face.