Why do global foundations need to align for impact?

Author: Jordan Junge

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together

African Proverb

We know that the challenges our societies face are growing in scale and complexity. We know that not one organisation is capable to solve these challenges alone. Not even foundations, who are uniquely positioned and are able to take more risks and invest in a longer time frame.

Although we know we need to work together, this doesn’t make collaboration or alignment any easier in practice. This is why we brought together senior representatives from 20 global foundations and leading thinkers on this subject for a retreat focusing on this topic in September 2017. Together, we  explored practical frameworks, approaches and case studies of alignment. We brought funders together with their peers from around the world to ask themselves and each other hard questions about shifting organisations, cultures and mind-sets.

What do we know about the challenges and painpoints – the view from global foundations

In preparation for the retreat, we interviewed 16 key CEOs and senior staff from foundations around the world about their view on alignment to better understand the key challenges and opportunities in this topic. Several themes emerged from these interviews about where the stumbling blocks are and why foundations find it hard to align:

1. Operational challenges and bureaucracy: All organisations have a difference in governance structures, operating models, and complex multi-layered accountability 

2. Differing priorities 

  • The institutional ego of foundations
  • Tensions between staff and Executive Board priorities
  • Short term vs long term impact
  • Tension between funders wanting to work together to transform systems, and the need to deliver and display impact according to our own internal mandates and missions

3. Working with partners is hard

  • Changes in staff with external partners and high turnover- particularly with governments
  • Understanding the dynamic of the partners in the alignment or collaboration- who needs to be brought in and when? And what’s the right level for those to be brought in? (High level influencer vs someone who has the time to do the work)


4. Systemic challenges: The size of the system and the scale of the problem is so large to know where to begin and how to sequence

5. Lack of tools that enable alignment – There are so many frameworks and tools, and everyone uses different one. There is also a lack of sharing of tools between siloes and sectors 

Opportunities going forward

‘Maybe our biggest stumbling block to action is ourselves. We know that we can have a bigger impact but we need to ensure that we have the right mind-set and operations in place to do so and to work with others. We’re really interested in learning how others have done this’ (Retreat participant).

As foundations grapple with these questions,  the funders part of the SIX Funders Node believe they can only start to address these issues by working together. In the coming weeks, we will share more insights and learning from the retreat.

Learn more about the retreat here.

I knew I wanted to come to this meeting, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realised how much I needed to be here

Participant at 2017 retreat.