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Learning Together to Work Together

Disruptive Innovations

Corporate philanthropy in Colombia has grown considerably in recent years. Today, corporate and family foundations are one of the most important engines of the social sector in Colombia. However, the joint work between these actors has always been difficult, not because of lack of capacity, but because of deterrents that discourage the strengthening of the collective work. There are several dissuasive elements, although generally they point to the fact that corporate foundations tend to focus only on their areas of influence, topics of interest, or the experience of the companies. This is the reason why, in 2015, after a visit to the region of Urabá Antioquia, one of the most impoverished and conflict-affected regions in the country, the Foundations of the Antioquia region associated to AFE -- Association of Corporate and Family Foundations, committed to plan a collective project, that would consider how collective work can be effective for the development of regions that need it most.

The collective project, "Learning Together to Work Together,” is a unique initiative in Colombia, based on the thought that collaborative work would be more effective in the development of the regions and produce a greater impact within their communities. This project has a multidimensional vision that invites the experience and resources of the participants to be channeled with the objective of improving the quality of life of two communities in Antioquia’s Uraba and Oriente regions.

In other words, this project was created to face two main challenges: The first is the ability of the corporate philanthropic sector to work together. According to Phil Buchanan, there are four main barriers to foundations working collaboratively: thinking philanthropy is a business, measuring misaligned incentives, power dynamics, and ego. The second challenge is the social problems of the municipalities of San Juan and San Luis in the regions of Urabá and Oriente respectively; these two sub-regions of the Department of Antioquia were seriously affected by conflict and today experience high levels of poverty, a low quality of public services and educational infrastructure.

The First Challenge

Faced with these initial challenges, the collective project succeeded in overcoming the barriers to their collective work. As mentioned by Buchanan in his book Barriers to Funder Collaboration and the Will to Overcome Them, there are four main barriers that prevent foundations from working together collaboratively: 

a)  Thinking of Philanthropy as a Business 

Buchanan describes philanthropy as often being perceived as a business. In other words, as happens in a market economy, actors compete between themselves to address aspects of a common problem by breaking it into manageable parts. The collective project’s participants instead realize that there should not be a competition but instead the creation of synergies among philanthropic actors to achieve a real change in the social challenges facing a community. In the collective project, the participating foundations have found a space for dialogue and common paths to develop, leaving mistrust behind them and taking advantage of their joint skills, with the understanding that this is the only way to eradicate the social problems facing the two municipalities of the project.

b)  Measuring Misaligned Incentives

The second barrier refers to the need for foundation leaders and directors to produce results for their boards, which leads to an emphasis on "taking credit" that reduces the effectiveness of the collective.

AFE Foundations participating in this project understand it in another way, and amongst the group they have developed an approach on to how present the collective project to their boards of directors in the best way. Collaborative work often means that a foundation is improving its reputation and renewing its commitment to work for the country's development. Also, the collective project, although it does not generate results that can be measured individually by each participating foundation, is an innovation laboratory for the sector. This sows interest among the board of directors, because although its impact is not individually-based, the project makes each foundation a leader at the helm of participatory work in the country and beyond. The project serves as a vehicle for the paradigm shift between individualistic philanthropy verses one focused on collective impact.

c)  Dynamics of Power

The third barrier identified by Buchanan, the dynamics of power, is also an issue which emerged in the collective project. Although Buchanan describes it as the relationship between grant givers and recipients, it can also refer to the one who is making the project more visible or who is appropriating it. The AFE has played a very important role in this aspect, acting as mediator when differences arise between the AFE Foundations that unbalance the dynamics of power, which in this project are centralized in the slogan -- "Learning Together to Work Together."

d)  The Ego

Finally, and perhaps the most important barrier, is what Buchanan describes as ego. Buchanan says that the way to get rid of the ego is by working through a leadership based on advising and persuasion. This is something that is achieved in the Collective Project. Instead of relationships where an AFE Foundation, or the AFE itself, orders or controls, foundations have found time to meet to sit down to talk, exchange ideas and concepts, and consider what is the best approach for the populations they serve.

The Second Challenge 

The social problem of the San Juan and San Luis’ communities were faced through a first phase approach consisting of a diagnosis of the situation and its impact on the problems related to the development of these two communities, and a systematization of the impact this innovative solution may have to help facilitate collaboration within the area of the regional development.

This phase was attended by twelve AFE Foundations of the region: Fundación Orbis, Fundación Haciendo Equipo, Fundación Dividendo por Colombia, Fundación Familia, Fundación Fraternidad Medellín, Fundación Universidad de Antioquia, Fundación Bancolombia, Fundación Haceb, Fundaunibán, and Fundación Corbanacol. With Fundauniban and Fundacion Corbanacol leading this phase and overseeing the contextualization exercises with the direct participation of the communities.

This diagnostic phase was divided into four steps:

  1. The first stage includes the participation of the communities. The situation is contextualized through dialogue with the communities and authorities and the analysis of the information obtained.
  2. During the second stage, the focus relies on identifying the priorities among the problems that most need to be resolved.
  3. The third stage consists of getting feedback on the priorities identified from members of the community.
  4. The last stage involves writing a formal proposal about the implementation of the project and inviting other stakeholders from civil society, the public, and the private sector to participate in the next phase of the project.

The diagnostic phase can be qualified as successful because it achieved the goal of getting the community to participate in the process of creating a real proposal. The next phase will focus on implementing the priorities of the proposal, for example, improving sanitation of the sewage system and drinking water services in San Juan de Urabá and San Luis East.


The collective work of this project has been an important initiative for the corporate and philanthropic world. Because of it, participants of AFE Foundations have learned to face the challenges presented by a collaborative project with a shared vision and they successfully broke down the barriers identified by Phil Buchanan. The diagnostic phase was so successful that four new foundations from the region joined the AFE to also participate in the project. There is a long way to go, and the challenge now will be in the implementation of all of the priorities identified. The results achieved to date allow us to presume that stakeholders of the project have “learned together to work together,” therefore, the other phases of the project have every opportunity to also be successful. 

Works Cited

Buchanan, Paul. “Barriers to Funder Collaboration and the Will to Overcome Them,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 15 (2017). Accessed June 7, 2017, URL:

About AFE:

The Association of Corporate and Family Foundations -- AFE Colombia brings together 74 of Colombia's most representative family and business foundations, with the purpose of serving as a platform to advance collectively in the search for sustainable changes over time. 

The AFE is based on three main axes: connecting, communicating, and advocating, to achieve greater articulation and effective collaboration between its associated foundations and other stakeholders, integrating the knowledge and experience of its associates, which are characterized by their understanding and commitment to the territories and with the communities, and to serve the agenda of the public, promoting and concretizing efforts that contribute to the construction of a more sustainable, equitable, and fair country.