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What type of network funder could I be?

In our research and experience we have seen three common “types” of network funders. The more traditional type is the behind-the-scenes funder, who engages primarily on a financial level with minimal backbone support. The roll-up-the-sleeves funder puts in considerable time and effort but is not a substantial source of financing. The third common type is the full-spectrum funder who combines the two, often assuming key roles through investing both their own effort and substantial funding.



What these three types reflect is how different funder-network relationships vary across two particularly critical variables: how much financial support the funder provides, and how much non-financial backbone support the funder provides. Financial support is typically provided as grants; backbone support often takes the form of time spent providing expertise and leadership, but can also include making important introductions and other thoughtful ways of participating through personal rather than monetary contribution.

How much financial and backbone support you provide will typically change over the lifetime of your engagement with a network, and as a result, what type of network funder you are will phase in and out of these three positions from one year to the next.

A helpful way to use these types is to consider them at the outset: ask yourself which type of relationship you expect to have with a network, and picture how it might unfold over time. Then, using the following section, explore the specific financial roles you might play by providing grants and backbone roles you might play by providing your personal involvement.


Behind-the-Scenes Funder

The Behind-the-Scenes Funder provides significant financial support to the network but is not a substantial participant in its work. This will probably feel the most natural, since it is the closest to the standard funding-oriented relationship between a grantmaker and a grantee. It can be the right choice in any situation when you have confidence that the network is capable of doing its work independently. That might be because there is a consultant in place who you trust to lead it effectively, the network already has its own strong leadership, you can’t commit your own time but can commit funding, or because you believe that the network will be better served by others stepping up to provide backbone support.

Roll-Up-the-Sleeves Funder

The Roll-Up-the-Sleeves Funder provides some degree of financial support but provides most of her support in the same manner as the rest of the members, both by participating and by finding helpful ways to provide backbone support. This could mean you assume roles such as helping to attract additional funding, convening the network, making introductions, engaging public will, helping guide vision and strategy, or managing the network’s finances. This is often the right choice when you have a great deal of personal enthusiasm for the work or expertise to offer, but are  constrained financially to be a Full-Spectrum Funder. Perhaps you don’t yet have a strong case to make for more funding, the network is already large and well-developed, or other funders are already providing mainstay financial support.

Full-Spectrum Funder

The Full-Spectrum Funder provides a high-capacity support structure and provides substantial support by playing several of the backbone roles described in the next section. The most common reason to play this role is when you are starting a new network or you are leading an existing network through a transformation to take it in a new direction. You may act as this type of funder because you have the capacity and skills to contribute. Or you may find yourself stepping up in order to meet needs that would otherwise go unmet. The Full-Spectrum Funder often plays major roles in both financial and non-financial support such as in convening, weaving, and guiding the network and typically takes responsibility for making sure that all necessary activities in the network get done, even if those activities are led by another network member or a third party. Being a Full-Spectrum Funder can be highly effective and deeply satisfying. However, watch out that you don’t over-direct the network, accidentally creating the belief among other participants that it is primarily “your” initiative and thereby sapping their desire to contribute.

The role we play depends on the quality of leadership and how it’s organized in the space we move into. I have one initiative that I only have to check in on 2-3 times per year. They keep trying to pull me into a more strategic partnership. But I trust them, they’re making progress, and I get informed of the gaps so I can fund them accordingly. It’s really hands-off.Ivan Thompson, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

How do I anticipate what type of funder I have the ability to become?

You need to reckon with the upper limit of how much you can afford to provide of your funding, time, relationships, facilities, and other resources, and over what timeframe. We spoke with several funders where the foundation began funding a network, saw it develop in a very promising direction, and decided to re-allocate most of its portfolio and human capital to provide the network with the necessary support. But not every grantmaker has the ability to provide that type of single-minded commitment. What level of support makes sense for you typically depends on a number of factors:

  • Your capacity: How much time and creative energy do you have to commit to the network—now and over the duration of time you expect to be involved?
  • The relative priority of this grant: How high would this investment rank if you had to force-rank your grants from most to least important?
  • The strength of the network’s leadership: Does the network already have a well-developed ability to keep itself moving forward and is it developing in a positive direction? If so, would the network be better off building its own sense of independence at a healthy distance? If not, is it likely to continue needing heavy engagement from you or can you picture it developing stronger leadership in the near future?
  • Your organization’s readiness to work with networks: Does your organization understand the value of supporting a network, the mindset required to work with them effectively (as described in this section), and the need to stay flexible in responding to its needs?

So little is known at the start [of a network], I think doing a work plan is a little backwards. I think you have to get into it and discover what the work is before you can make a plan.Stefan Nachuk, The Rockefeller Foundation

Our involvement and commitment varies. It depends on how the network fits into the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish and how mature the network is.Brinda Ganguly, The Rockefeller Foundation