The Power of Collaboration: A Case Study on Nonprofit Founder and Funder Partnership

In December 2014, The Surge Institute received its first grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. This milestone marked the beginning of an enduring and fruitful partnership between the two organizations that continues to this day.

In a recent webinar hosted by The Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU CGA) and Aperio Philanthropy and moderated by The International Social Impact Institute Founder and CEO Liz Ngonzi, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at NYU CGA, Surge Institute Founder and CEO Carmita Semaan and Schusterman Co-President Julie Mikuta pulled back the curtain on how this influential partnership formed and evolved over time. Their insights showcase how nonprofit leaders and funders can collaborate to drive meaningful change.

Getting the First Meeting

Semaan credits her organic network for facilitating an introduction to the Schusterman team. Two Surge board members had existing relationships with Schusterman and made the initial connections. Semaan had also crossed professional paths with a Schusterman program officer through past work in education.

Leveraging these warm introductions, Semaan approached her preliminary meetings prepared to speak passionately about her vision for the organization. Though Surge did not neatly fit Schusterman’s funding priorities at the time, the funder saw promise in Semaan’s leadership and idea.

The Power of Authenticity

Beyond strong leadership and a compelling mission, Mikuta notes that alignment on core values cemented the partnership. “Ours are equity, impact, optimism, collaboration and humility. And I just saw that embodied in Carmita and the programs that she was creating,” she said.

Semaan also emphasized authentic relationship building, saying she and Mikuta “aren’t afraid to be candid with each other.” This ability to give and receive constructive feedback stems from a shared commitment to the work.

Cultivating a Lasting Partnership

While the first Surge grant was framed as a one-time investment, the funder’s consistency provided a crucial stamp of approval. “We want to stay in as a signal to other funders that this is somebody to back,” said Mikuta.

Semaan actively strengthened ties through frequent communication about Surge’s progress and challenges. She also wasn’t shy about asking for introductions to other potential funders. Over time, the two organizations developed an interdependent partnership marked by transparency and mutual understanding.

Key Takeaways for Nonprofit and Funder Collaboration

Semaan and Mikuta’s insights reveal best practices for early-stage organizations looking to secure startup funding:

  1. Leverage your network for warm introductions.
  2. Show up authentically and lead with conviction.
  3. Invest in evaluation and impact tracking from the start.
  4. Maintain open communication; treat funders like partners.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make bold funding asks.

Their case study also carries lessons for funders, including bringing vulnerability into conversations and remembering shared goals. By leading with purpose and passion, nonprofit and funder partnerships can drive collaborative social impact.

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