Changing the system

Collaborative funding has been crucial for helping London's civil society infrastructure to work together towards a collective vision for change.

Jenny Field
City Bridge Trust

The Cornerstone Fund is a collaboration between City Bridge Trust (CBT), the National Lottery Community Fund, Trust for London, John Lyon’s Charity and the Greater London Authority, with London Funders, London Councils and London Plus playing advisory roles. It aims to change how civil society infrastructure (CSI) is delivered and funded in London.

CSI is the wide-ranging background support civil society organisations need to do their jobs well - things like capacity building, strong networks and a strong collective voice. Typically a Council for Voluntary Service, local volunteer centre or specialist organisation would provide this support. But in 2016, in collaboration with Greater London Volunteering, London Voluntary Services Council and others, London Funders published The Way Ahead, a report arguing for a better system than London’s patchy CSI tapestry.

In response, in 2017, we formed a working group of funders, sector experts and public-sector organisations to discuss the need for CSI systems change. This working group morphed into the funder collaboration we have today, but it wasn’t easy. ‘CSI systems change’ was nascent - and a touch jargonistic, we admit - and our proposal to collaborate as funders was unusual. This all meant that funders needed some convincing. However, the argument that London needs a thriving civil society which is adaptable, resilient and driven by communities proved compelling in the end.  

Collaboration at every level

In April 2018 we launched a fund with a two-layered goal: to help achieve CSI systems change by funding collaborations between CSI organisations using a funding model that is itself collaborative. Collaboration at every level - between funders, between projects and between funders and projects - is crucial to our aim.

Indeed, the Fund requires projects to apply as a partnership. Stage 1 funding  provides grants of up to £25,000 for applicants to develop these partnerships. Stage 2 then provides full grants to deliver CSI work. Pooled funding proved too complex or impossible for some funders (although Trust for London and CBT have recently pooled funding). Instead we aligned our funding, with each funder identifying which specific project(s) it was likely to fund at Stage 2 so that each lead applicant only followed a single funder’s process rather than multiple. 

Each funder selected which specific project(s) that they were likely to fund at stage 2 so that applicants only followed a single funder’s application process rather than needing to apply to multiple funders.

We also work with Collaborate CIC as a learning partner. They have been invaluable, navigating complex waters with fantastic facilitation skills while fostering an atmosphere of openness, honesty and excitement. Their systems-change expertise and joint funder-project learning sessions have been essential in framing an unusually equitable, collaborative funder-project relationship. It isn’t perfectly equal, of course, but we feel like critical friends rather than critical managers.

Without collaborating, the ambition of our goal would simply be impossible, because systems change needs collaboration.

A portrait photo of the author
Jenny Field
City Bridge Trust

Collaboration as a need, not a 'nice-to-have'

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. Collaborating has allowed us to learn so much and make progress in these areas. We know we can embed this learning deeper into our organisations, and better capture and communicate it, but its benefits have nevertheless been profound – evident, for example, in partnerships’ more coordinated, effective response to the pandemic. 

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. Together, these ingredients have created real togetherness. I remember stopping in one session and a few of us saying: ‘Whatever happens, let’s retain this collaboration moving forwards.’

The funder collaboration has both benefited and challenged grantees. It would be much harder to convince projects of the value of systems change, let alone equip them to pursue it, without modelling the requisite collaboration as funders. Combined with the Stage 1 grant and a flexible approach, collaborating clearly signalled that we know partnerships are vital but difficult. Indeed, our alignment has been far from perfect, with differing funder timetables and approaches proving frustrating and confusing at times for projects.

Encouraging projects to work more collaboratively with each other has helped them better understand their ecosystem, expand their networks and coordinate to increase capacity and address gaps. In many cases projects have discovered the value of working in partnerships they otherwise wouldn’t have considered, and that some funds wouldn’t have allowed!

These benefits made projects, like funders, more resilient during Covid. We hope this predicts a future system of CSI that reflects our ambition that it “is adaptable, resilient, collaborative, sustainable and driven by communities.”

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