Collaboration: a matter of heart and head

By Guest contributor 20 March 2014

Andrew Barnett is Director of the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. He was previously Director of Policy Development and Communications at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Collaboration is a hot topic. But more people are talking about than could do it—especially in the social sector.

This seems surprising; one might expect collaboration to thrive in a sector that has high levels of goodwill and trust. Yet compare ours to a cut-throat sector like the financial services industry, which has little trouble syndicating deals and forging partnerships, and you realise there are more instances of collaboration in the competitive world of income generating than among organisations committed to social change.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a step change in approach, with myriad examples of charitable organisations collaborating on particular issues with positive results. But why is it that charitable foundations (with some notable exceptions) struggle to collaborate and/or align their work?

I think it comes down to the notion of independence. For a long time this has been a defining feature of foundations; a badge we treasure and defend. The problem is we’re not independent—we’re interdependent. There’s very little we do that doesn’t have some effect on a wider system.

Forming a partnership doesn’t mean surrendering your individual identity; nor is it an apology for ‘I wish we were one big organisation’. In fact, the best collaborations bring together different parties with unique strengths and complementing skills, knowledge or resources. Essential to successful funder collaboration is an understanding of the ecology of social change, and knowing one’s place within it.

For the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK, collaboration is in our blood—our founder spent his lifetime bringing people together and fostering connections to achieve his business aims. Today, it is a matter of heart and head. My heart tells me we can achieve more together than we can alone. My head tells me that as a small funder we can only have an impact on big problems if our direct actions are amplified.Our size lets us be flexible and take risks in seeding innovative projects. But in order to make a significant differencewe depend on others who can take the models that workand scale them. We exist at one end of a social innovation chain and need that chain to be sustained through collaboration to reach large-scale change at the other end.

As well as being involved in collaborations ourselves, we’ve taken this principle further by providing early support for the open innovation networks SIX and Collaborate. These organisations exist to strengthen the capacity of the sector to collaborate by creating platforms for exchange and synergy. In this way, modest resources can have an exponential impact.

Three dimensions are at play in collaboration: return, risk and time. Time is the undervalued one. The reality is that for charitable foundations like us who have been set up in perpetuity, we have all the time in the world.

This is a unique and privileged position to be in. Many organisations working for social change are accountable to the outside world. They’re under pressure to produce short-term attributable returns. But given the support of our trustees, we can say we are less interested in immediate results. We can focus on the lengthy process of building collaborations which promise greater impact in the long run. This is our niche, and we should take advantage of it.

Andrew recently spoke at our ‘Encouraging funder collaboration’ event. This blog is based on an interview Andrew gave with Social Ventures Australia, available here.