Philanthropy is a team sport

Participants in a Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship site visit to Montana's Blackfoot Valley.

It was the mid-1990s and personal computers, email, and the internet were all relatively new. With limited budgets and little experience with technology, most of the small grassroots groups that we wanted to support were relying on phone trees and fax machines to communicate. Even the most established and well-funded groups were struggling to figure out how to make use of emerging tools. Given Paul Brainerd's experience with technology, it was natural for us to want to help groups modernize their communications.

But a foundation of our size couldn't possibly tackle a challenge as vast as this alone. So, we pooled our resources with the Bullitt Foundation and launched a new organization called ONE/NW (Online Networking for the Environment, NW; later called Groundwire) to help organizations across our region plug into the internet and use the tools and technology they needed to be successful.

This collaboration happened in our first year of operations, and it taught us the importance of partnering with other funders. With our headquarters in Seattle, we were in close proximity not only to the Bullitt Foundation, but to a number of other small family foundations that shared our passions and priorities.

Our foundations had common programmatic interests and similar approaches to philanthropy. We made a point of hiring staff with direct experience in the field as former advocates, campaigners, and non-profit leaders. This gave us an understanding of the challenges our grantees faced and a deep commitment to get on the ground to see what was happening up close. By pooling our knowledge and keeping each other informed, we were able to make smarter grants.

As our group of like-minded funder colleagues grew, so did our commitment to work collaboratively. We met regularly to share information about the organizations and campaigns we all supported. We flagged issues of concern, like leadership transitions and budget shortfalls, and coordinated additional support when it was most needed. When the financial markets dropped in 2009, we sent a collective missive to all of our grantees with ideas and advice to help them prepare for the economic downturn.

Over the life of our foundation, our relationships with fellow funders strengthened our programs, increased the impact of our grant dollars, and made our lives richer.

Fellows have kept their learning alive by gathering frequently, even traveling together to learn more about place-based issues, including this trip to Glacier Bay, Alaska.

The Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship

In 2012, we partnered with Social Venture Partners (an organization conceived of by Paul Brainerd) to create the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship, a program designed for individuals with the resources and passion to become significant environmental philanthropists.

Each year, a new cohort of eight to twelve participants spent a few months together delving deeply into environmental issues. Each participant developed a theory of change for their philanthropy, and by the end, made a significant financial contribution to an organization in line with those goals.

In an unexpected development, their journies didn't stop there; the fellows kept in touch over time and continued to increase their giving and engagement in environmental issues. Many collaborated with each other and shared information—much as our foundation did with other like-minded funders. Many joined boards and became deeply involved in environmental organizations and campaigns, and some even traveled together to other parts of our region to expand and deepen their learning.

The impact of the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship went well beyond the numbers, but the numbers were impressive. By the time our foundation closed, eight cohorts of fellows had graduated from this program, and the annual giving of its seventy graduates had grown to exceed the average annual grantmaking of our foundation.