Philanthropy California

  • Collaboration Type: Alliances & Networks
  • Region: NSI
  • Social Issue: Philanthropy
  • Size of Organizations: >$10 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: No
  • Successful: Yes

Three philanthropy serving organizations in California came together to speak with one voice. As a result, they had greater policy wins in the state, including the formation of a new statewide philanthropy liaison position in the Governor’s office. This collaboration relies on deep trust among leaders of the organizations as they continue to navigate advocacy opportunities. 

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Take the time to develop deep relationships among leaders at several levels. These relationships allow an alliance to pivot in response to changing needs and survive senior leadership transitions.
  2. Recognize the inherent management tensions in being an alliance and meeting both the demands of the alliance and those of local communities.
  3. Pay attention to what works now and embrace the places where your alliance/network can have the most impact today.


  1. Statewide philanthropy liaison position in the Governor’s office.
  2. Significant philanthropic investment aside from NSI.
  3. Policy wins in census and redistricting.
  4. New member services are offered jointly, including education trips and online training.

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. For alliances and networks, invest in relationship-building at multiple levels. Support proposals that don’t just go from A to B but that engage multiple levels of the organization in planning.

How can philanthropy-supporting organizations use sustained collaboration to make a more significant social impact on behalf of their members? Philanthropy California’s story provides evidence of how philanthropy can harness the power of collaboration with the proper support.

Northern California Grantmakers (NCG), Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties (formerly Catalyst), and Southern California Grantmakers (SCG) began discussions regarding enhanced collaboration between the three California Regional Associations in May 2014. This gathering of the CEOs and key board members from each organization laid the groundwork for how the three organizations could work together in programming, membership, communications, public policy, and back-office support. The next step from this meeting resulted in forming a steering committee consisting of the CEO and two board members from each organization.

Around this time, the group applied for and received support from the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative. With the grant, they hired The Giving Practice to help them build the deep collaboration needed for a multi-issue network. Audrey Haberman, former managing director of The Giving Practice now CEO at the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, reflected on why the process worked. The senior leaders “were caring towards each other, clear in their needs, honest when the going got tough and always committed to the mission and the belief that this was worth the work and resources. A structure is only a structure. It’s the people, leadership, and values that make collaboratives work.”

The collaboration and trust extended beyond the leadership team. By bringing together staff from across all three associations and across California, there was significant staff participation in developing the initial strategy for Philanthropy California was formed. “Collaborative development of the strategy led to ownership and led to trusted relationships between the staff of the organization,” Mark Sedway, Senior Advisor at The Giving Practice, noted.

The Early Years

In 2017, NCG, Catalyst, and SCG announced the founding of Philanthropy California. They initially announced five priority areas: (1) find staff efficiency in operations, (2) connect member and collaborative programs, (3) develop strategies to support member public policy work, (4) facilitate joint membership for statewide and national funders, and (5) brand the alliance for the purpose of speaking with a unified voice. But the alliance would be shaped as much by the emerging issues in California as by these initial plans.

Almost immediately, they found work together on funding the Census, working closely with a national organization focusing on Census support a statewide strategy and funding table. And then they got into work about redistricting. Karla Mercado, Director of Philanthropy California, summarized:

“During the latter part of the Census work, we started slowly talking to some foundations about redistricting. We started hosting some funder education on what redistricting is, what it’s not, and why philanthropy should care about it. I think that caught the eye of a big funder in the state that supported redistricting the previous cycle. And they asked if we would house a pooled fund with some of their seed money. That was incredible because it was the first Philanthropy California pooled fund. Considering that we just rolled out in 2017, we didn’t realize that we could get to a point where we could manage a little bit over $2.8 million in the fund. We quickly learned the value of having three regional organizations working on redistricting and the pooled fund. Although we were a statewide platform, we quickly realized that we could not redistribute those grants to just statewide organizations. There was a lot of local work … So, it was a combination of statewide and regional tables funded through Philanthropy California’s pooled fund.”

Managing through Leadership Transitions

Within a couple of years, two of the three regional CEOs transitioned out of their roles. Such a transition might have put another network at risk. However, Philanthropy California had made two moves earlier that allowed them to continue their public policy momentum despite the leadership transitions. First, all of the organizations committed at the board level. And second, the initial process of developing Philanthropy California included the entire staff. As a result, Freeman explained, Philanthropy California “really became a thing right away. It was something that we all believed in … I think we just built a great partnership among staff. The staff knew each other. They trusted each other. They saw this as part of their job.”

That trust also allowed Philanthropy California to continue to evolve while maintaining a high level of commitment. In the early years, Karen Freeman (now Chief Operating Officer at Southern California Grantmakers) was managing much of the day-to-day of Philanthropy California. But as each organization grew, it became clear that it wasn’t possible to keep all five priority areas of the initial network going. Freeman explains,

“We realized it wasn’t physically possible to manage operations, HR, and finance jointly. It was me. So, I was flying across the state, doing everyone’s finances, HR, and my SCG role. And it just wasn’t physically possible. And we didn’t discuss why we shouldn’t hire somebody else and do it. We just decided that wasn’t going to be the focus. We wanted to have a more external focus. We focused on public policy and how we could have an agenda encompassing the whole state.”

Carrie Harlow, Director of the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, reflected on this transition and noted it was part of a trend among philanthropy-serving organizations.

“It’s reflective of a trend that we’re seeing across the field of philanthropy, in the sense that philanthropy-serving organizations are no longer content just to serve the immediate needs of their region. The member organizations that participate in these organizations are interested in impacting policy and having a larger impact. That requires influence, and it requires a larger megaphone. And this structure they’ve come up with of joining together across the philanthropy serving organizations across the state enables them to have a larger voice and to connect on what they will prioritize.”

Early on, the external focus was primarily on educating their 600 members. They engaged in joint racial justice training and educated members on the full costs of a grant. They also conducted bus tours of some places in the state that were less likely to get funder attention, bringing representatives into more rural regions. Each of these joint initiatives helped to build the capacity of their member organizations for greater advocacy.

Public Policy Focused

By 2022, Philanthropy California had codified its public policy vision. The 2022 Focus Areas summary puts it this way:

“The goal is to come together to maximize our deep regional expertise and connections to increase philanthropy’s impact to build a thriving, equitable, and inclusive California. Philanthropy California’s work focuses on key issues impacting our state and nation- equity and racial justice, inclusive democracy, climate change and disaster resilience, and economic resilience and sustainability.”

Indeed, Philanthropy California has emerged as a significant advocacy voice. The leaders of each of the three organizations credit the collaboration with allowing them to have a bigger impact. Freeman noted that representing “600 plus foundations across the state rather than each organization going in there alone” allowed the group to have bigger wins in Sacramento and Washington, DC.

One of those big wins was establishing a permanent philanthropy liaison in the Governor’s office. That person liaises with the CEOs each month, helping elevate the philanthropic perspective. And they are a vital contact when issues arise. Megan Thomas, President & CEO of Catalyst of San Diego and Imperial Counties, described the impact:

The Senior Advisor on Social Innovation has “a liaison in each of the [state] agencies, giving her insight into what they are thinking and a connection there. If there is something that has statewide implications, she has that megaphone. And some people respond to a message coming out of the Governor’s office differently than when it comes from their (albeit trusted) regional philanthropic liaison. That helps us elevate issues of statewide or national importance.”

This statewide platform has made Philanthropy California a trusted leader in the state’s climate and disaster reliance plan. Now, when there is a disaster, state agencies point the public to Philanthropy California’s website to learn about pooled funds where they can contribute.

Thomas summarizes the impact of Philanthropy California today. “We are a stronger voice in the state capital and beyond when we speak with the voice of a statewide coalition of philanthropy.” This advocacy structure demonstrates how philanthropy-serving organizations can make a greater social impact by working together.


  • Alliances and Networks