Reflections & Recommendations: Our Experience Funding Cohorts

Sarah Miers

The Center for Effective Philanthropy recently released a report about the role of foundation transparency. One of the key findings was that foundations should be more transparent about lessons learned – both in the successes and failures of their programming. We couldn’t agree more. This transparency not only encourages communication within the philanthropic field, but sharing experiences around what did and didn’t work can help shape more impactful programs for the communities we collectively serve. 

In the spirit of foundation transparency, we are excited to share a summary report of our experience with Microsoft on the 2014 YouthSpark cohort program. We shared our excitement and initial findings from the program in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article just over one year ago, understanding that our continued work in 2015 would yield new perspectives and recommendations. Having just completed the program, we wanted to report out, share our lessons learned and provide context and actionable recommendations for nonprofits and donors interested in engaging in cohort funding programs. 

Our experiment: Funding cohorts with Microsoft

For the past few years, SVCF has collaborated with Microsoft on a cohort funding program in Silicon Valley. In line with Microsoft Philanthropy’s global YouthSpark initiative, Microsoft Silicon Valley and SVCF designed a multi-year grant round that provided financial support and peer learning opportunities to a cohort of three to five local organizations working to empower youth through technology. The goal of the cohort funding program was to encourage communication and collaboration among the organizations in hopes to support collective impact in the field. This was a pilot program for Microsoft, and the first time Microsoft and SVCF partnered on a cohort funding model.  

In 2014-15, four selected cohort organizations each received a total of $30,000 in general operating support to participate in the cohort program. This funding was not tied to a specific programmatic outcome; the only requirement was to participate in five Community of Learning sessions where the cohort members could deepen their relationships, discuss challenges and opportunities in the field and participate in tailored trainings.  

Reflections and recommendations 

We learned a great deal through administering the 2014-15 program and reflecting on our experience. As detailed in the summary report, we gathered feedback on the value of networking to connect like-minded nonprofits and the potential for cohort programs to enhance and influence each partner’s programming. Cohort discussions also provided insight on the challenges inherent in this kind of funding program, such as the decision processes for investing in specific partnerships and the challenge of maintaining these partnerships amid internal organizational changes. As a funder, another significant area of learning involved the way we administered the program itself; we hope that sharing and reflecting on this experience can support other funders interested in administering similar programs. 

We feel the program was successful, but there is always room for improvement. Our reflection on the 2014-15 program led to the following eight recommendations for building strong cohort programs:

1. A key theme that emerged from the program is the challenge of maintaining partner relationships amid internal organizational change. While key individuals can steward relationships between participating cohort organizations, the cohort program should create opportunities for even deeper organizational collaboration by organizing networking events, engaging additional participants in meetings and creating formal structures for sharing cohort news and events within the cohort’s respective organizations.

2. Applicant feedback demonstrated that some nonprofits were unclear on the goals of the cohort program and the Community of Learning sessions. We recommend that funders be very explicit about the program goals during the application process and to work with grantees before the program beings to identify meeting themes and a program structure that will best encourage the cohort’s collaboration and development. 

3. In addition to general operating support, funders should consider their unique value-add to the NGO community and find ways to leverage distinct resources for “beyond the check” support. 

4. While the cohort program is focused on strengthening partnerships among the group, the program should also invest in strengthening individual organizations through tailored feedback and training opportunities.

5. Feedback from the participating cohort suggests that modest cohort funding programs (in this case, $15,000 per organization per year) may be most impactful when focused on deepening existing nonprofit partnerships rather than asking NGOs to partner for the first time.  Funders interested in providing higher levels of financial and programmatic support, however, are of course encouraged to brainstorm opportunities to foster new nonprofit partnerships through a cohort funding program.

6. Collaboration during the application process can initiate communication among nonprofits and lead to a more cohesive and compelling narrative. Funders should therefore explore opportunities to encourage collaboration even in the initial application, including a longer application timeline so nonprofits can find time to connect with each other during the process. 

7. Joint funding can foster competition, undermining the goal of NGO collaboration. Microsoft and SVCF therefore individually funded each nonprofit with an equal grant amount; we recommend this structure for other cohort programs.

8. Organizational change is a constant, and the probability of change is even greater when working with multiple organizations. Funders can best support organizations if we remain open to evolution and change as the program progresses. 

We are excited to apply these recommendations to Microsoft’s 2016 YouthSpark cohort funding program. We hope you can take a moment to read, reflect, and comment on our summary report; the discussion will help us be more effective in the work we do!

If your nonprofit supports computer science education for underserved youth in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, please take a look at Microsoft’s 2016 YouthSpark cohort funding opportunity! Organizations must apply with a cohort of three to five partners, and applications are due May 31, 2016.  

For more information on how Silicon Valley Community Foundation can support your corporate responsibility work, please contact