Funder collaboration: a paradigm shift

December 8, 2023


minute read
Richard Graham
Director, Barnardo's Foundation, and co-convenor, ACF Evidence and Learning Network

Many years ago I was sitting in a hotel café looking over Lake Malawi drinking a lukewarm cup of Lipton’s tea. A fellow funder and I were grumbling about the explosion of civil society organisations working on HIV, and the levels of duplication and inefficiency in service delivery.

‘Still,’ she said, ‘we’re a root cause of the problem, aren’t we?’

As the sun dipped over the lake, I had to agree. So we hatched a plan to pool our funding, bring in a couple more funders and invest more strategically in HIV prevention and care over the long term.

This isn’t an unusual ‘origin story’ of funder collaboration. Like many, it was characterised by opportunistic conversations, pre-existing relationships of trust, and a willingness to do things differently.

Funder collaboration isn’t new. But it does seem to be gaining momentum - especially if the growth of the Funders Collaborative Hub, hosted by ACF, is anything to go by.

But is it worth it? Does it work? ACF’s Evidence and Learning network recently hosted an event on this very topic.

Here’s a ‘burning platform’. It’s probably a bit glib to say funder ‘business as usual’ is broken. But it’s not that far off the truth. Patron-client and often neo-colonial relationships. Narrowly defined project mindsets. Short termism. Unstrategic. Not joined up. I could go on, but you get the point. The heat is on, as Glen Frey sang in ‘Beverley Hills Cop’.

That’s not to say funder collaboration is a panacea for all these problems. Far from it. But what funder collaboration can do is create some of the crucial conditions for achieving longer-term, more strategic and more systemic change.

So if that interests you, read on.

We heard case studies which talked about how people and institutions with a shared passion and long-term commitment to defined localities became game-changers.

Richard Graham
Director, Barnardo's Foundation, and co-convenor, ACF Evidence and Learning Network

The scene for our conversation was set by Oxfam GB’s Aleema Shivji, with perspectives drawn from her experience as both a funder and a grant-seeker.

Five conditions for effective funder collaboration emerged from the conversation that followed. (I’m playing slightly fast and loose with the wide-ranging ground we covered, but let’s go with it.) They are:

  1. Growing the pot of money. Obvious, I know, but still worth stating. And in doing so, enhance the chance to achieve greater and more systemic impact at scale.
  2. Risk sharing. Not just with other funders, but with your funded partners. Which results in a greater willingness to invest in innovation. Fail fast and all that.
  3. Reducing transaction costs – especially for funded partners. And if you head down the co-creation path – strongly advised - eliminate applications and reporting entirely as these become part of wider shared processes.
  4. Harnessing funder assets: convening power, access to other networks, policy influence and more.
  5. Learning together. Move beyond the ‘show and tell’ of reporting into deepening insightful conversations, iterating progress based on real-time learning and building a more robust evidence base.

Wait up, I hear you say. Isn’t that a bit prescriptive? Doesn’t collaboration take many forms?

Well, yes, it does (as the Funders Collaborative Hub has demonstrated).

But here’s a question to ask yourself. Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone and enter a paradigm shift in funder thinking and behaviour?

Cartoon of chick that has just hatched out of an egg. The chick says "Oh wow! Paradigm shift!"

If you are (and if you’ve read this far, then I’m hopeful), then embrace those conditions.

Good. Because doing so takes courage. And leadership. Like my story in Malawi, many, if not most, collaborations start with people - human relationships with high levels of trust. People are the catalysts for effective funder collaboration.

This is fine – at the beginning. But as collaborations evolve, it’s critical these personal relationships mature into institutional ones if the collaboration is to be sustained over the long term.

I was struck in our session about the power of place-based collaboration. We heard case studies which talked about how people and institutions with a shared passion and long-term commitment to defined localities became game-changers – often as a result of unintended benefits.

The Gannochy Trust's Steven Greig told us how, in one Scottish local authority, they spawned a shift in the whole ecosystem of youth work, resulting in a wider uplift in youth-serving activities, volunteering and much else besides. City Bridge Foundation's Jenny Field shared how, in London, collaborative funding helped local infrastructure organisations to work towards a collective vision for change.

As I said, funder collaboration isn’t a panacea. It’s a means to an end. To milk the ecosystem analogy a little more, and at the risk of sounding a bit cheesy: do you want to throw out crumbs to the birds, or collectively tend a biodiverse garden?

The choice is yours.

What do you want to collaborate on?

Add a collaboration opportunity to the Funders Collaborative Hub and connect with other funders who share your interests.

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