When I joined The Patterson Foundation (TPF) as an Initiative Consultant in 2012, I was told my job was to provide “value beyond the check” in my role with the partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design to create a Collaboratory, a unique approach to art and design education that would ultimately guarantee every single Ringling student real-world opportunity during the course of their education.
The Patterson Foundation, unlike any other major nonprofits I had ever been associated with, is not a “grant-making” organization. Rather, it is a partner-defining organization that seeks opportunities to create unique collaborations for projects in which it invests.
Its purpose is to identify and fund innovative and creative ideas that others won’t, can’t or don’t, and the foundation works with collaborative groups to accomplish them. TPF consultants act as a “guide on the side,” a combination of mentor, advisor, and big-picture thinker whose role is to facilitate partnerships, raise the right questions, and keep the focus on the ultimate vision. The goal is to complete the partnership in a relatively short time (a few years), and leave behind a sustainable and meaningful project or accomplishment.
The role of a consultant
I fell in love with that idea, which is exactly what I have always thought consultants should do. Consultants shouldn’t be running the show; they should be helping the people creating the show to think it through and challenging them to join with others to make it the best it can be. They should elevate and energize, without managing or impeding the creativity of the organizations they serve.
In practice, there are many learning opportunities in this approach. Generally, some organizations hear the word “foundation” and automatically think “grant.” They just keep asking, “What do I have to do to keep you happy and get the money?” rather than “How can we work together to strengthen this project and take maximum advantage of the value-added component?”
Learning to use a partnering mindset
Generally, some organizations think of “reporting” to funder(s) as a necessary burden rather than a perfect moment for reflection and a re-set, a time to look at trends and priorities and see if there are emerging opportunities, a time to consider lessons learned and re-consider the direction of the work.
I have seen that clarity is the key to forestalling such issues — simple, clearly written agreements that are discussed in depth, with each partner’s obligations understood before signing; careful role definitions from the outset; checking-in frequently to make sure partners are operating from trust and respect and remaining true to the agreements.
Ultimately, every partnership is a gathering of individuals, each with their own ideas about how everything should go. And as with every human gathering, maintaining tone is critical: staying in touch, fostering the relationship, and taking responsibility to get things right if they get off-track. In the next few years, as the Ringling Collaboratory partnership plays out, I’ll be blogging more about what we are learning that may offer learnings for others interested in creating lasting change.
Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.
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