3 Myths of funder collaboration busted

January 20, 2021


minute read
Rob Abercrombie
Funders Hub Interim Project Lead

There are lots of compelling arguments for collaboration. It’s worth bearing in mind that collaboration is not an end in itself, and we need to be critical in assessing where it is relevant. But, assuming that you are convinced collaboration is a tactic you should pursue, how can you make sure it works?

There is a small but useful literature on the subject (for example Collaborate’s toolkit), and we will add resources to the Funders Collaborative Hub over time. Here I want to draw out some lessons from years of partnership working - things you won’t read much about in the reports - by busting three common collaboration myths.

Myth 1 – It is easier to go it alone

Collaboration can throw up difficulties that have to be negotiated and it’s certainly common to find it at least intermittently hard going. So, what does the fact it can be hard tell us, and how should we react?

Organisations have different interests, needs for credit, and governance procedures to be navigated. Collaboration of any depth is likely to necessitate tackling some inherently tricky things, like compromising over scope, ceding some sovereignty, and sharing credit. These factors explain much of the difficulty encountered in a process of collaboration.

We need to set our expectations appropriately. Why, after all, would we expect collaboration to be easy? Social change isn’t easy. The hard graft of collaboration is the work of social change. I have in the past heard complaints about the time spent negotiating tricky partnerships being a distraction from the day job of grant-making. I’d see it the other way around: it is central to that job.

Stick with it, and you create the possibility of achieving far more than you could alone, because tackling complex social problems is very hard for any one actor to do successfully. Of course, no-one is saying stick with it at all costs – you must use your judgement about whether it’s worth it. Much of the time though, some rockiness is just a normal part of the process. Just because the path is sometimes hard to travel, does not mean it’s the wrong one.

Myth 2 - Conflict is best avoided

The desire to avoid conflict is natural. When collaborating, the fear is that trust will be easily broken by open disagreement and debate, so issues that people worry will provoke conflict are avoided.

This tendency can be particularly acute in the honeymoon period of collaborations. During this early phase, it’s tempting to ignore a nagging feeling that not everyone wants the same thing, or has the same understanding, for fear that difficult conversations on these issues will puncture the mood of goodwill.

Avoiding conflict is understandable, but I would counsel against it. If you don’t address conflicts early on, they don’t go away, they just come out later and derail things when there is more invested in the collaboration. Early on is the perfect time to air differences, as the substantial goodwill that exists helps with addressing them constructively.  And somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the very process of working through conflicts that builds relationships of genuine trust. Avoiding difficult issues leaves the collaboration untested, it maintains an illusion of trust, not its reality.

Successful collaborators need the courage to be honest about difficult issues, and the resilience to deal with them constructively. The willingness to enter this ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’ (Google ‘ZOUD’ for more on the topic), is a key skill for collaborating successfully. without it much time can be wasted pursuing collaborations that are doomed to fail. The good news is the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Myth 3 - Strong leadership and collaboration don’t mix

There is a perception that it is destructive for any one party to a collaboration to exercise strong leadership. People are keen to play nice, which can result in a tendency to be highly participative in our decision-making.

But, as discussed, collaborations are hard. They face barriers, and there is a natural inertia that needs energy to overcome. Without leadership they can drift, moving at the speed of the slowest participant. They need drive, ambition, and the willingness to take responsibility.

When it comes to the style of leadership, that is a different story. It needs to be facilitative and generous about sharing power and credit. Think about how the best facilitators work. They provide a clear framework that encourages all to contribute meaningfully. Without that framework the risk is everyone just has a jolly chat.

In conclusion, let me flip the three myths into three rules of thumb for collaboration:

  1. Collaboration involves navigating inherently difficult things, so don’t be put off by hard work because it’s to be expected - persist.
  2. Have the courage to enter the ‘zone of uncomfortable debate’. That way you will find out early if it’s viable, and you will build genuine trust.
  3. Don’t be afraid to provide leadership. Collaborations need energy, drive and ambition, but make sure it is facilitative not domineering.

Rob Abercrombie was the interim project lead for the Funders Collaborative Hub until the end of January 2021. He was previously Director of Programmes and Partnerships at The Royal Foundation, and Director of Research and Consulting at NPC.