No funder is an island: What collaboration means for donors

By Oliver Carrington 26 May 2016

Great results happen when organisations work more closely together. NPC have long highlighted this many times, including in a report on the topic. But how should funders approach collaboration and encourage grantees to do the same? This was the focus of our event last week ‘Let’s work together’, in partnership with the Bulldog Trust and chaired by head of NPC’s funder team Angela Kail.

It was great hearing from a panel made up of three very different funders, each with their own stories of collaboration.

Will Sommerville spoke first on how Unbound Philanthropy have leveraged further grants for refugee charities by collaborating with other grant-makers.

Jon Fox, Head of Funding at Big Lottery Fund, told us that collaboration is not just about joint funding; it’s about working together proactively, spotting connections between proposals, and acting as a catalyst for collaboration among grantees.

Our final speaker was David Cutler from The Baring Foundation. He admitted that the internal constraints of some trusts make collaboration difficult and that this is unlikely to change. Funders with the ability to be flexible must therefore lead the way.

The speakers and their audience also discussed the various ways of making a collaboration successful. The following four tips really stood out for me:

  1. Choose suitable partners. To maximise the benefits of collaboration, partners need to be a good cultural match and share long-term goals. ‘Shotgun weddings never work’: The Baring Foundation learnt this lesson from their past grants scheme. It aimed to bring together two very different types of organisations, but found in reality that they could not work with one another effectively.
  1. Value all that a partner can offer. Resource size matters, but networks and knowledge can be equally important. Cutler claimed that funders are often guilty of stepping into areas where they have no expertise. Big Lottery Fund have also learned to be more humble and to let others take the lead.
  1. Don’t ignore the power dynamic. It’s difficult to avoid the power imbalance in grant-making, so funders shouldn’t be afraid to use their position to achieve more. For example, if a membership body could be the answer to facilitating collaboration then fund it, lead it, provide incentives and hold the group’s progress to account.
  1. Soft power works. When ‘forced marriages’ are imposed on charities they tend not to end up happily ever after. Panellists cited several instances where organic partnerships have bloomed without requiring hard tactics. For example, grantees connecting at events convened by funders, or getting a group of grant-makers in the same room to discuss how to react to a major cut in legal aid.

Despite all the benefits, panellists warned against romanticising the sector’s appetite for collaboration. Many funders tend to operate in isolation and fiercely protect their independence, while charities spend much of their energy competing with one another for grants.

Of the many insightful questions from the audience, I found the most thought provoking questions were those without any clear answers from the panel, such as: Is it now time for the philanthropy sector to cast off the constraints that limit collaboration and seek systemic change?

While collaboration is not without difficulties, panellists agreed that funders need to be doing more of it. For me, the most sobering message from the event was Sommerville’s reminder that philanthropists cannot make any significant impact on society’s problems when they act alone.

We will be hosting two more events with the Bulldog Trust on aspects of funding: ‘Rebalancing the power’ and ‘Knowledge is power’. Take a look and sign up today.