Key Points

Funders are increasingly looking to interagency and cross-sector collaboration as a strategy to solve complex, large-scale issues, but many collaborative groups fail to generate an impact with their work. This is due in part to funders’ own practices, such as pre-specifying the problem to be solved or limiting their grantees’ ability to adjust their strategy.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts has been intentional about facilitating the effectiveness of the collaborative groups it supports. Its Health Care & Health Promotion Synergy Initiative provides long-term funding and assistance with planning, evaluation and sustainability to groups that define the problems they want to solve.

This article presents systems-change outcomes from 14 collaborative groups supported under the initiative since 2000. Interviews with representatives from four of the more successful projects indicate the key tasks involved in designing, implementing, refining, and sustaining impactful programs. Interviewees reported on the value of the Synergy Initiative model, but also emphasized that the model requires high levels of commitment and analytic capacity.

One of the most challenging features of the model is the funder’s direct engagement in the process. Given the power dynamics that naturally arise when the funder engages directly, we recommend that this approach be used only in situations where the funder can build strong, honest, give-and-take relationships with the other participants in the process.

Open Access