What is equitable collaboration?
Since the pandemic began, two notable themes have emerged in how we address our shared challenges: the importance of collaboration, and the need to embed greater equity in all that we do. Equitable collaboration combines both, by acknowledging existing power imbalances, then agreeing structures and ways of working to actively redress them.
For those denied access to power and resources, partnerships are often unavailable, inaccessible, or inequitable. It’s much easier to work together within ‘trusted circles’ and among familiar faces. But in doing so we exclude groups who could greatly benefit from and contribute to the process. Worse, minoritized groups report that their involvement can be simply tokenistic.
This needs to change. While time and money will always be an issue, we need to better understand how collaboration can better address that unequal starting point. And whilst there is already good work to learn from and build on, these need to become the norm. We need to create practical tools and resources to help partner organisations ensure equitable collaboration.
Why we must work together equitably
Over recent years we’ve seen a notable increase in collaborative structures – such as place-based approaches, collective impact initiatives, funder collaborations, and so on. Even public sector agencies are increasingly pursuing multi-sectoral approaches – particularly in the fields of health (e.g. NHS Anchor Institutions) and multiple disadvantage (e.g. Changing Futures).
This is of course to be welcomed – particularly when the purpose and outputs of these collaborations are clear and tangible (which is sadly not always the case!). However, there can be an assumption that such collaborations are by definition based on equal participation. It’s simply not true. Entering into collaboration without addressing issues of power and equity risks perpetuating the same power dysfunctions that exist outside of them.
Many across the sector are already examining their own approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We need to start applying this to our partnerships as well. There is a movement across the sector – and indeed between sectors – towards more collaborative and systemic ways of working. We’re also seeing a lot of organisations trying hard to embed greater equity within the sector. We think that bringing these two movements together has a huge transformational potential to help charities and funders more effectively deliver their missions as we rebuild the sector.
Why equitable collaboration is difficult
Equitable collaborations require time, money, and headspace — all of which are in short supply as we rebuild from Covid-19.
Embedding more equitable practices in collaboration can feel like swimming against the tide of wider social norms that shape how people interact. Participants in one of our recent workshops reflected on how social hierarchies often reassert themselves even when partners are trying to act in a more equitable way.
More broadly, power dynamics and inequalities are systemic issues that are deeply entrenched. Inequalities within the social sector reflect inequalities in wider society. No single collaboration is going to overcome those issues on its own, so it can feel daunting to work within this context.
However, power dynamics in collaborations are less binary than they may first appear. Whilst it may be difficult for powerful organisations to cede control, other dimensions of power are also at play. The organisation leading a collaborative initiative is completely dependent on the participating organisations to meet its obligations. Arguably the convener needs the participants more than the participants need the convener, which gives them certain power over the process.
How to make equitable collaboration work
Embedding equity in collaboration starts by acknowledging existing power imbalances, then agreeing structures and ways of working to actively redress them. There are already good approaches to learn from and build on, but these need to be brought together in practical tools, examples, and support so they can become part of mainstream practice. These include:
- Ensuring fair payment and processes for resolving issues (as recommended by Rebalancing the Relationship).
- Allocating resources based on a needs analysis that recognises ‘multiple disadvantage’ (as suggested by Imkaan in a good practice briefing on collaborative working).
- Power-sharing models where partners elect lead organisations to coordinate services and operate through an equitable partnership agreement (as done by the London VAWG Consortium).
- Co-creating open online spaces that are collectively owned by the community, set up so anyone can contribute at any time (as pioneered by the UK Democracy Handbook).
- Facilitated collaborations with codes of conduct that create a level playing field for different voices to co-produce solutions to social issues (as done by Noisy Cricket in their work with homeless people, businesses, charities and government in Manchester and by Counter Community in North Staffordshire).
- Grant-makers funding equity and inclusion partners to strengthen the design and reach of their programmes (as done by the London Community Response Fund and Comic Relief’s Global Majority Fund).
- Funders addressing hidden hierarchies and listening to grantees (The Listening Fund).
- Movements for greater systemic shifts in power between organisations, for example by getting funders to shift towards smaller, grassroots organisations (as the #ShiftThePower movement has campaigned for internationally).
What we’ll do next
At NPC we’re looking to work with funders, charities and others who want to enshrine equity in their collaborations. We are keen to hear from those with experience of working in equitable collaborations, as well as anyone with experience of inequitable ones.
We would like to convene a small cohort of existing/emerging collaborations to gather what works in creating and sustaining equitable collaborations so we can share and disseminate practical tools and resources to encourage more equitable collaborations across the sector.
How this idea was developed
Our idea for equitable collaboration is based on conversations, workshops and research with numerous charities and funders who have taken part in our Rethink Rebuild initiative. Here’s what we’ve learnt from this work.
How collaboration is changing
Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen some positive shifts in how charities, funders, and philanthropists worked together. This should not be surprising. People tend to come together in crises, driven by an urgency of need that breaks through organisational boundaries.
But many of the challenges to more equal and effective collaboration remain. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, we are already starting to see a shift back to some of the siloed approaches which undermine efforts to get support to people who need it most.
Through our workshops with funders and charities, we heard how the Covid-19 crisis created a host of new opportunities for collaboration. These include:
The instinctive collaboration response: Collaboration can feel synonymous with ponderous and protracted planning. Yet collaboration is often best when it is emergent and spontaneous, and driven by a clear, shared sense of purpose. The pandemic gave rise to this sense of purpose and in many areas, collaboration ‘just happened’.
New momentum: Charities have told us how this spontaneous collaboration with new partners gave them a new experience and understanding of how collaborations can work. As we have reported previously, charities have taken the initiative to maintain the momentum, for example, in trying to build on the new working relationships that have emerged with local authorities.
Cross-sectoral collaboration: Charities, funders and government bodies reported working together across traditional boundaries and in new ways. NPC’s Coordination in Place report found there was faster collaboration between organisations and sectors, along with a stronger sense of shared focus. Collaboration can sometimes happen within familiar and established circles. We believe it needs to happen outside of them, and that we need to collaborate with unlikely allies. We are starting to see such cross-sectoral (or intersectional) collaboration emerge. For example, Crack the Crises is a coalition of organisations committed to tackling the inter-related crises of Covid-19, injustice, climate change and the nature crisis.
Funder collaborations: The pandemic led to new, high profile funder partnerships. Some, such as the London Community Response Fund, were set up to get money to where it was needed as quickly as possible. Others, such as the Funders Collaborative Hub or the Greater Manchester Funders Forum aim to provide funders with a permanent space to align their work and share intelligence.
While it is encouraging to see permanent collaborative structures emerging from the crisis, a post-crisis phase clearly presents challenges for continuing to work collaboratively. These include:
Reassertion of boundaries: As the crisis recedes, it is perhaps inevitable that some will revert to previous practices. Old siloes and boundaries are reappearing. For example, charities are reporting that cross-sector meetings with local authorities are happening less, coordination support is withdrawing, and previous partners have become more reluctant to share information. With staff emotionally, mentally, and physically overstretched, the capacity to forge collaborative relationships could drop.
Collaboration stretched by scarcity: As Covid-related funding dries up, and with reserves depleted by the pandemic, it is likely that funding will be increasingly hard to come by. Collaboration costs time and money, so when resources are stretched it can be seen as a nice-to-have. As we saw in our Coordination in Place report, there can be a loss of momentum. Partnership working should therefore be built into charities’ funding streams and agreements.
Enshrining equity in collaboration: The common mantra in a crisis is that ‘we’re in it together’. Yet many participants reflected to us that ‘although we may have been in the same storm, we were in very different boats’. Fault lines based on access to resources and power thus reopen, with unequal power dynamics undermining effective collaboration. For collaborative working to be sustained, this issue of equity must be understood and addressed.
Participants in our workshops told us that equity in collaboration was the challenge that they wanted us to develop further through our Rethink collaboration work, as they felt that collaborations that fail to address inequality risk perpetuating it.
We are grateful to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation for supporting this work.