A problem shared

By Rachel Findlay 13 March 2012

Funder collaboration should be a success in theory, but is often hard to implement in practice. In theory, by working together funders can combine money and effort to create a wider impact than they would achieve in isolation.  But managing multiple stakeholders can be time consuming and frustrating, so is collaboration worth the effort? Does it really yield enough benefit?

Last week I read, with interest, Jenny Oppenheimer from The Pilgrim Trust’s blog on the evaluation of the Corston Independent Funders Coalition (CIFC). CIFC is a group of 22 grant-making trusts and foundations set up in response to 2007’s Corston Report into women and criminal justice. Concerned that their grant-making investments were being applied to a failing system, the foundations formed the CIFC to challenge the government to implement the report’s recommendations—calling for an end to putting non-violent women offenders in jail and moving towards placing them in far more effective community solutions. Their work includes advocacy, funding and critical partnership with charities and government.

CIFC commissioned an independent evaluation for two reasons: to evaluate the success of the collaborative model, and to evaluate the impact of the group’s work.

Some of the key findings of the evaluation of the model were:

  • collaboration between funders is challenging and should not be undertaken lightly;
  • successful collaborations share certain characteristics;
  • funder collaboration which focuses on advocacy has its own distinct drivers, challenges and success factors;
  • CIFC members found the collaborative experience to be interesting and rewarding, despite some early frustrations;
  • through funder advocacy and collaboration the CIFC achieved outcomes that individual trusts and foundations could not have achieved alone.

The evaluation of the model highlights the challenges that collaboration involves, especially when starting out. Questions emerged such as: how do you make decisions when you have so many parties involved? How do you keep all partners on board? What is the right level to engage each partner? It is the learnings around these issues I think are most interesting. There are several lessons from CFIC’s evaluation to help other funders planning future collaborations:

  • ensure that the collaboration begins with a supportive climate, a credible and passionate champion and the right timing;
  • make time for planning, especially in the early stages;
  • have clear roles and responsibilities with different levels of engagement for different partners;
  • develop a democratic, participative and inclusive culture;
  • nurture trust between partners;
  • define common aims and goals; and above all
  • remain open and flexible.

The evaluation is positive: despite some initial challenges, all the members interviewed felt they had benefited enormously by working together on a really interesting issue, getting to know one another better, exercising their collective voice and pooling their experience. Through collaboration the CIFC felt that it achieved outcomes that individual trusts and foundations could not have achieved alone. This, to me, shows how valuable a collaborative approach can be—as long as funders are prepared to invest in it properly, and learn from those who’ve already been there. Sharing resources and effort can increase the impact of your work; sharing what you’ve learned from the experience, like CFIC have, is equally important to help other funders take their first steps towards collaboration.