How funders are finding their collaborative advantage

June 16, 2022


minute read
Jim Cooke
Head of the Funders Collaborative Hub

In my last two blogs, I looked at the data on more than 90 collaboration opportunities shared on the Funders Collaborative Hub. I explored what issues funders are collaborating on and where they are collaborating.

Now I’m looking at why funders are choosing to collaborate. What additional benefits are they pursuing by working together that they couldn’t achieve alone?

A means to an end

Most people seem to agree these days that collaboration between funders is ‘A Good Thing’.

In fact, when the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) surveyed its members in November 2021, 97% of respondents either said that they had already collaborated with other funders or that they were interested in doing so.

As part of its current strategic review, ACF has set out to dig beneath the surface of this apparent consensus, finding out more about the specific added value funders are seeking by collaborating.

Through further surveys and in-depth interviews with foundations and other stakeholders, we’ve built up a more nuanced picture. This has highlighted the plurality of what funders understand by the term ‘collaboration’ as well as the varied reasons why they see value in these activities.

As one person put it, collaboration “should be a means to an end, and that end will vary depending on objectives of particular foundations at particular points in time”.

The four common benefits of collaboration

As well as sharing information about collaboration opportunities, the Funders Collaborative Hub aims to provide inspiration and tools to help funders maximise the benefits of working together.

Our Funder Collaboration Toolkit is a collection of 12 resources that cover every stage of planning, building and stewarding a collaboration.

The section of the toolkit I find myself referring people to most often is a tool we call ‘The Articulator’.  As we say in the introduction to this tool:

“Collaboration is hard work, so it’s worth thinking about exactly how joining forces with other funders will add value to the issue you care about.  Articulating your ‘collaborative advantage’ means clarifying your collective assets and considering how working together could help you achieve more than continuing to work separately.”

Funders’ collaborative advantage comes in lots of different varieties, but some common themes are emerging. By analysing the collaboration opportunities shared on the Hub, together with everything we’ve heard through ACF’s strategy consultation, we’ve identified four main ways that funders are setting out to achieve more together.

Collaboration can enable funders to be more ambitious in how they approach large-scale or complex issues.

Jim Cooke
Head of the Funders Collaborative Hub

1. The power of networks

Understanding their role in the ‘ecosystem’ is the most common benefit we see funders seeking from their collaborative activities. It’s arguably also the most important one, as it often provides a starting point from which other collaboration opportunities can grow.

Participating in networks around a shared interest – whether geographical, issue-based or relating to aspects of grant-making practice – typically requires a relatively low level of formal organisational commitment. This can make it an accessible option for funders seeking to share information, learn from each other and better understand how their individual roles and contributions ‘fit together’.

As Thea Monk, Chair of the Greater Manchester Funders Forum says, “the idea is to make connections, build a picture of the funding landscape and share information and intelligence.”

Pooling their knowledge and being more aware of each other’s activities can help funders make best use of their limited resources by identifying gaps, avoiding duplication and providing more coherent support for those they fund. 

2. Improving efficiency

Having built mutual awareness and relationships through their networks, some funders will want to take collaboration further than just sharing information. A common motivation for closer collaboration between funders is to find ways of making their grant-making more efficient, for example by aligning processes or achieving economies of scale.  These efficiencies can be felt by both the funders themselves and those seeking funds.

Pooled funds, enabling a larger pot to be distributed via a shared process, is one possible way of creating efficiencies – although this does require upfront work to agree on governance and roles in designing and delivering the fund.

Gloucestershire Funders has opted for a more informal approach, creating a single application ‘front door’ that enables funders to co-ordinate their grant-making, while each keeping control of their individual grant decisions. Sally Byng, Chief Executive of Barnwood Trust, explains how this collaboration was designed to meet the needs of both funders and applicants:

“We saw that as funders we needed to act collectively to find ways to be of better service to our grant applicants. From the start, our focus was on fast, flexible and practical support, so we didn’t ask members of the collaboration to sign up to any formal agreements.”

3. Engaging with non-funders

Some funders have found ways of structuring collaborations in ways that support more equitable involvement of other organisations. This enables them to approach their goals more holistically.

This has been a priority for the Community Justice Fund as it reviews its governance for the long-term. Clare Carter, joint CEO of the Access to Justice Foundation, explains:

“One thing we know is that we shouldn’t be making decisions separately from the advice sector itself. Having frontline agencies and sector bodies from across the UK on the fund's steering group was an important asset.”

There is growing recognition amongst funders of the unequal power dynamics inherent in most grant-making – which also bear the imprint of pervasive inequalities in wider society. Although collaboration is not a ‘silver bullet’ for addressing power imbalances, it can play a part, creating spaces for mutual accountability between funders and their other stakeholders.

The Just Foundations Initiative is a group of foundation chief executives who came together to pursue a commitment to advancing racial justice.  They are highly conscious of the risk “of believing we are challenging each other, when we are in fact giving ourselves an easy ride… To counterbalance this, we have begun asking groups led by people of colour whether they would like to engage with us, on their terms. We value this expertise and offer to pay for their time to do so.”

4. Tackling systemic issues

Collaboration can enable funders to be more ambitious in how they approach large-scale or complex issues. For example, this might involve developing shared strategies and combining their expertise, voice and other assets to make a bigger impact, or sharing risk to encourage more innovation. 

The Cornerstone Fund is a funder collaboration that aims to change how civil society infrastructure is delivered and funded in London. Jenny Field from City Bridge Trust explains how “without collaborating, the ambition of our goal would simply be impossible, because systems change needs collaboration. Among other things it requires a collective vision for change, trusting networks, shared systemic awareness, joint learning and co-design at every level.”

“Sharing the risk of trying something big and experimental has made the inevitable bumps and scratches easier to bear, with flexibility and a strong, shared commitment to the mission also critical enablers.”

Cross-sector collaborations such as this, bringing together the complementary assets of charitable grant-makers and public bodies, can create influential levers for change.

The Building Connections Fund, a three-way partnership between the Co-op Foundation, The National Lottery Community Fund and DCMS, was designed to build an evidence base that would directly inform policy development. Louise Snelders, Head of Funding and Partnerships at the Co-op Foundation, told us how "the increased chance of policy change is an exciting benefit of working alongside the Government". The collaboration brought together the complementary strengths of each partner, including convening power, technical expertise and the Co-op Foundation's deep relationships with its grant-holders.

How could collaboration help you achieve more?

You can read more about all the examples I’ve mentioned above (and find lots of other ones) in our collection of in-depth funder collaboration case studies.

Have you thought about how you might achieve more for your mission by finding other funders to work with?

Whether you want to work more efficiently, equitably, systemically – or simply use the power of networks to understand how your funding fits into the wider landscape – the Funders Collaborative Hub is here to help.

You can use the Hub to:

Inspired to collaborate?

Discover more than 90 collaboration opportunities. Filter by issue or location to find those that relate to your own mission.

Explore the Hub