collaboration, engagement, guest posts

Guest Post by Ed Nicholson: Collaboration from the Funder’s Perspective

10 Comments 18 March 2010

Guest blogger Ed Nicholson at SXSW Interactive 2010

Ed Note: On February 16, I wrote a post entitled “Nonprofit Collaboration: Doesn’t It Make the Pie Bigger?” which elicited 27 comments, and started many discussions. Ed Nicholson, who manages corporate philanthropy for Tyson Foods,  commented on the post. He wrote “I predict you’re going to see some experiments in collaboration among funders toward encouraging more non-profit cooperation (I love your term “coopetition”). There are already some larger hunger relief funders (some of us competitors in the marketplace) having informal discussions about how we can work together to influence more efficiency and collaborative work among the non-profits we fund.” After that comment, I had to ask Ed to submit a guest post for this blog on the idea of collaboration and coopetition, from the funder’s perspective. This is his guest post:

A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by the lively discussion here about non-profit collaboration and “coopetition” (I love that term).

As someone who helps manage a corporate philanthropy budget, I’ll tell you it can be frustrating and confusing to be approached by requests from multiple non-profit organizations with the same missions and areas of operations. Which one to fund? Who’s doing the best work? Where are the redundancies and inefficiencies that are surely there? There’s a temptation (rarely acted upon) to tell all of them, “When you guys get this sorted out, come back and we’ll consider it.” In other words:  “Go collaborate, and make it easy for us decide who’s doing God’s work.”

Easy for us to say, right?

I’ll quickly grant that many in the for-profit sector probably have unrealistic expectations of non-profit organizations to be so mission-focused that all competitive activity is set aside.  After all, whether we’re doing it for money or love, all of us have rent to pay and organizational objectives to achieve.

But the fact is funders do notice organizations that have a collaborative spirit.  I believe those organizations will be rewarded.  Because now more than ever, the question: “How are we going to solve this problem?” is taking priority over:  “Which organization does best in this area?”

At Tyson Foods, we’re not a big funder in the grand scheme of things. We’ll never (to borrow a phrase from finance) “move the market” when it comes to influencing how grant recipients behave. However, we’re around some of the big guys on occasion, and I can tell you, there is talk about how influence—and funding—can be used to drive more collaboration and efficiency among non-profits. There’s even some discussion about how funders can collectively drive collaboration.

I’m going to suggest that your online community is a great place to start that collaboration. Online communities tend to tune out organizations that have an ego-centric approach. We could all benefit by spending less time talking about ourselves and more time talking amongst ourselves.

For whatever it’s worth, potential stakeholders who spend time in this space, especially those who “get it,” are going to be much more impressed by organizations that show a collaborative online presence than those who use social media channels as broadcast vehicles. As corporate and foundation funders themselves join online communities, they’ll take notice of organizations that add value and engage, rather than simply pump out their own messages. I know I take notice.

Would you ever retweet those who are competing for resources, or link to their blog posts?  Do you engage with those who aren’t potential donors or sponsors? Do you link to good things those outside your own organization (and not just your sponsors) are doing or saying? How do you add value to the community?

I have a recurring event on my Outlook calendar for 5pm each day: “Do something good for the community.” It reminds me to put up some bit of online content that’s purely for the good of the cause. It’s not an easy resolution to follow, and one I often neglect. But I know if I can do it, it will benefit my company as much as it does the community. That spotlight, focused outwardly, invariably reflects back favorably on us.

Ed Nicholson is director of community and public relations for Tyson Foods, Inc. He helps manage corporate philanthropic activity, and has directed Tyson’s involvement in hunger relief since it became the company’s philanthropic focus in 2000.

  • lisagoddard

    When we created @events4good on twitter to let people know about our events and volunteer opportunities for events, we felt that the greater community good was to support all events with a social good component. We'll re-tweet about any event in Austin, TX supporting local nonprofits.
    – Lisa
    Capital Area Food Bank of Texas


  • It'll be interesting to see where this goes in the coming years. There have been discussions for years by foundations to “reward” [reading that as somewhere between “prod” and “coerce” ;-)] nonprofits that play together. Some groups/missions seem better suited to it than others. Considering how much overlap there is with NPOs and how many new orgs will sprout up in the next few years doing the same thing as many that are currently in existence, it would be beneficial to get them to coordinate and consolidate.


  • Lisa, great idea! Wish all communities had some type of “collaborative good” effort. Thanks for telling me about it!


  • Hi Jeff,
    I, too, am curious where this all will go. I was part of a collaborative project funded by The Boston Foundation years ago that was of a similar nature to encourage nonprofits to collaborate. I thought Ed had a good point that funders also notice favorably nonprofits that voluntarily collaborate. Wouldn't that be interesting – you get “extra points” on your funding proposal if you can point to prior collaboration efforts?


  • This post and your previous post on Feb 16 “Nonprofit Collaboration: Doesn’t It Make the Pie Bigger?” has really brought the topic of collaboration to the forefront of my mind again. So much to say, I'll try to be short…

    My experience is that the biggest impediment to collaboration between organizations is that nonprofits don't want to share donor lists. Simply put, charities do overlap and do fight for the same donors. So how do we get around it? And, frankly, I don't think a rational conversation about the advantages of collabortaion will do the trick (unfortunately).

    I think Ed has really hit the nail on the head – the donors can encourage what the organizations cannot do for themselves. Just imagine if the next Pepsi Challenge or Chase Giving Campaign made it a criteria that all entires have to be comprised of three charities – NO SINGLE ENTRIES ALLOWED! Going even a step further, if the donors (who maybe also sit on the board) started to condition their donations on collaboration, I think that in a few years we could really be seeing a change in the culture of nonprofits.

    Sometimes, prod and coerce (thanks Jeff for the lingo) is the way to go. Well, here's to high hopes…

    Thanks Ed and Debra for the post.



  • Hi Shuey,
    Love your enthusiasm for collaboration – and the great ideas in your comment. I would love to see these happen. High hopes and all..!


  • Thanks for sharing Ed's thoughts, Debra – great guest post!

    I do want to note, though, that even if funders call for collaborative efforts among the nonprofits requesting grants, and none of the nonprofits do it, they still need to give grant money away each year. I think that is where the problem is allowed to persist. Funders have to give out the required amount of their corpus and even if they say nonprofits need to be collaboative, they can end up compromising in order to fund those playing by the old rules. And then they have kept the example going.

    I'm all for pushing the funders to make collaboative efforts part of their criteria, but I think it's important to create other mechanisms that stop the whole process of sliding backwards away from change.


  • Amy – this is a really important point about that funders have to give away all or a large percentage of their corpus yearly no matter what. It does get to the heart of the issue of why collaboration may not work even if pushed by funders. It makes me think that funders have to really buy into this, adapt some guidelines changes, or dedicate a percentage of all funds to collaborative projects. However, I wonder if nonprofits wouldn't step up to the plate to collaborate if the funds are there waiting to be requested? What would be the other mechanisms – do you have any in mind?


  • I know it's a machine that will move slowly–but I think you'll see incentives for collaboration come into play in the next couple of years, if only on a limited basis. Will they be effective? Anybody's guess right now. I can tell you there have been some discussions among several of the large hunger relief funders about how _they_ might collaborate to encourage more efficiency and effectiveness. Again, the jury is out as to whether these discussions will yield specific action. My friend Mike Thompson, in his book “The Organizational Champion,” refers to “The Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation,” a study by Martin Novak, director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard. The study looks at two types of organisms, “dominators” and “cooperators” (the latter actively contribute to each other's benefit). While dominators initially prevail, over time, _communities_ of cooperators always prevail, giving the species a better chance of survival. Perhaps there's a lesson for organizations here.


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Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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