Inside Emerson Collective's vision of 'frictionless' support for grantees

Anne Marie Burgoyne, managing director of social innovation at Emerson Collective, during a home visit with Partners In Health’s community health team in Rwanda in 2018. Photo by: Emerson Collective

SAN FRANCISCO — Emerson Collective uses a range of tools, from grantmaking to advocacy, in order to drive change in areas including education, health, and the environment.

At the helm of the collective is Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire philanthropist who inherited the fortune left behind by her husband, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Laurene prefers to keep the details of Emerson Collective’s giving private, but her team is supporting a range of organizations doing work related to international development.

“Our goal has been to make it literally frictionless. You can choose what you want to do. And there’s no inflexibility in how that happens.”

— Anne Marie Burgoyne, managing director of social innovation, Emerson Collective

Emerson Collective is one of a growing number of limited liability companies emerging in philanthropy. The LLC business structure provides Laurene with more flexibility to expand beyond grantmaking, by investing in for-profits, and supporting political causes, for example. And while Emerson Collective does not tend to discuss who they support, the team is increasingly sharing how they fund and partner with organizations.

The LLC structure has helped the social change organization navigate different channels to support organizations beyond writing checks, said Anne Marie Burgoyne, managing director of social innovation at Emerson Collective.

“Our two rallying cries as a team are: How can we help and what can we learn? And this structure has allowed both of those to happen I think pretty effectively,” Burgoyne said.

“We ask the question: What are the assets that are distinctly of the people here, and what can we bring to the organizations doing the harder work, the change work, that would make it easier and make the work better?”

The Emerson team refers to the additional services they provide, such as convenings where organizations in their portfolio can learn from one another, as “beyond the grant.”

Burgoyne, who supported early-stage nonprofits focused on social impact at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation prior to joining Emerson Collective in 2013, has emerged as a thought leader on ways to eliminate sources of friction in philanthropy, which she defines as “sticking points” in areas ranging from donor cultivation to grant applications.

Emerson Collective is taking a number of steps to counteract these dynamics, and it has seen initial success, according to Burgoyne.

One example is by providing the organizations in its portfolio with a menu of capacity building options. Some, such as support on storytelling, are offered in house, whereas others are offered by other vendors. The organizations can pay for the service, then submit the receipt for reimbursement, with no grant required.

“Our goal has been to make it literally frictionless. You can choose what you want to do. And there’s no inflexibility in how that happens,” Burgoyne said.

Emerson Collective has also set up special grant rounds for the organizations in its portfolio, such as a new funding opportunity to help groups advance their work at the last mile. The application was only two pages, making the process easy for organizations to apply with their vision, whether it be geographic, conceptual, or programmatic.

By giving the organizations it supports general operating grants over several years, Emerson Collective is able to build strong partnerships with grantees, Burgoyne explained.

“The goal has been really to build a relationship with you, so once we do that grant, there’s enough running room and comfort to over time make it a conversation about a wide variety of things, over enough time that we’re not always in a renewal,” Burgoyne said.

Emerson Collective can offer support from a range of experts that focus not only on investment, but also on areas including marketing and storytelling, convenings, and policy and advocacy.

“When you’re in a structure like this one, there is so much give and take of knowledge, of sharing of contacts, of understanding,” Burgoyne said. “It’s a very different structure I think than a lot of other philanthropic opportunities.”

Over the past several years, Burgoyne has shared more about the Emerson Collective’s approach with other funders. She is part of a group of 12 California-based foundations that meet twice a year and has an ongoing dialogue with groups ranging from Bridgespan to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While Emerson Collective may not disclose its grants and investments, taking advantage of a certain level of anonymity the LLC structure allows for, Burgoyne said she is interested in and open to sharing the approach more widely.

“There are very few places where you throw the pebble in the river and you feel like it ripples all the way to the edges,” she said. “So I’m always looking for places that are either adding to the ripples or making bigger ripples.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.