Co-location and Collaboration: A Concept for Lean Funders

In 2022, as the lease for the Sartain Lanier Family Foundation neared its expiration, Executive Director Pat Lummus reached out to her colleague Gabby Sheely, who served as the Executive Director of the Tull Charitable Foundation, and inquired about open spaces in the foundation’s current office. This conversation sparked the beginning of a journey of collaboration.

The outcome? Three Atlanta-based foundations —Sartain Lanier Family Foundation, Tull Charitable Foundation, and R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation—decided to all co-locate to a shared office space

This transition was an effort to leverage grantmaking resources more effectively, considering the three foundations' shared geographic focus on Georgia and—for two of them—on the metropolitan area of Atlanta. The collaboration, however, was not just aimed at generating cost-saving and convenience but also at creating a stronger work environment for staff with similar practices and challenges.

While maintaining their differing skill sets, personalities, and working styles, all three foundations prioritized cooperation and keeping the presence and personality of each foundation visible in the workspace. 

“It was important to us all that while we were co-locating together, we maintained our separate identities and honored the individual legacy of the founders and families,” said Holly Bills, Grants Manager at Tull Charitable Foundation, during a March 13th webinar. “We knew from the beginning that while we may have varying grantmaking strategies and history, values of each foundation and working styles were conducive to meaningful collaboration.”

Grantmakers often suggest that their nonprofit partners find ways to collaborate, so why not do the same if the opportunity arises for funders? 

R. Howard Dobbs, Jr., Sartain Lanier, and Joseph Mckeehan Tull

These pictures of the foundations' founders (R. Howard Dobbs, Jr., Sartain Lanier, and Joseph Mckeehan Tull) are displayed in the shared office space.


Benefits of Co-location

The shared space has brought together three small teams, each with less than five employees. The day-to-day interactions and having an office filled with people who understand the world of grantmaking have had a big impact on the organizations. 

“...There can be loneliness when you have a small team. We are grateful that our executive leadership thought about how to create an environment where we could all come together and have more colleagues, more people in the office, people to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with,” said Annie Appleton, Program Director at the Sartain Lanier Family Foundation.

Beyond sharing office space, the foundations also share accounting and finance consultants, calendars, and vendors. This has proved instrumental in achieving significant efficiencies, not only resulting in cost savings but also allowing the teams to focus more effectively on their respective missions and impact within the Georgia community. 

“Our hope was that leaning into a collaboration would lead to additional resource sharing above and beyond the specific expenses we share.” said Holly.

A major project undertaken together was adopting the same grants management system (GMS). Rachel Sprecher, Relationships and Operations Manager at the R. Howard Dobbs Jr. Foundation, spearheaded the selection process and all three foundations agreed to use GivingData. The foundations leaned into their trust in each other when they made the decision to adopt the same grants management software. 

Implementing and launching GivingData together facilitated closer collaboration, troubleshooting, and mutual learning. Working on the same grants management platform also helped them standardize their grant application processes, which enhanced the foundations’ grantees’ experience by providing consistency and streamlining interactions.

“Having the same system has been extremely beneficial. First, it made us grow closer, faster, due to us taking on a big project,” said Rachel. “I think when you enter into a big project early on, you're forced to work really closely together... It's also been really invaluable for troubleshooting issues with the software, learning new features together, and thought-partnering with each other about how to maximize the tool. We even share the same client support person at GivingData.”

“This is a project that I would have been working on all by myself, and something that maybe wouldn't be all that exciting… then became this fun group project, and had that sense of collaboration,” said Annie.


From left to right: Jeremiah Tan, the three foundations' Client Success Manager at GivingData; Rachel Sprecher; Annie Appleton; and Holly Bills.


Navigating Challenges

Any big transition like this is bound to come with a share of challenges to navigate. As Holly put it, “This is a work in progress…we don't expect to have all the answers right now."

The three foundations are slowly navigating this newfound community and the opportunities offered by co-location. By facilitating monthly topical lunches, the foundations have exchanged ideas and, with that, reevaluated their grantees’ experience.

This has improved communication and collaboration among staff, with practices like proactive team meetings that help anticipate and address potential challenges. While there is always room for continuous improvement, the overall experience has been positive and transformative for the foundations.

For lean foundations or anyone looking to improve efficiencies within their organization, we highly recommend watching this webinar discussion with the three foundations and Roberto Cremonini, Chief Innovation Officer at GivingData. 

While this co-location came about due to specific circumstances, there are plenty of lessons learned and inspirations to take from the experience of these three foundations. In particular, the idea that when funders come together, whether it’s through combining resources or just sharing best practices, philanthropy is stronger as a result.

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