The Funders' Collaborative Hub – a new venture

4th November 2020

The Funders' Collaborative Hub website launches today. The hub is a new initiative, hosted by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF), to help funders work together in response to Covid-19. Today is a good day, therefore, to reflect on the role of collaboration in the funding world.

Collaboration seems to bring out some strong reactions. For the enthusiasts (I am one), it is essential if you want to get good work done, and there isn’t enough of it. For the sceptics it adds unnecessary work and dilutes independence. Past the polarised gut reactions, the relevance of collaboration depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If the aim is to make some thoughtful grants to good charities on a responsive basis it is going to be less crucial than if you are interested in affecting policy or systems. But collaboration is increasingly relevant to responsive funders, too. The brilliant London Community Response Fund, for example, has shown how funder collaboration can make life easier for applicants and concentrate effort on a shared goal or geography.

For funders who are setting out to change the world in one way or another, the argument is different and the limitations of acting alone clearer. The chances of making much of a difference to complex problems like child poverty, homelessness, or repeat offending as a lone funder, even a well-resourced one, are slim.

Let’s take the example of one of the most ambitious Foundations on the planet. The Gates Foundation’s aspirations include eradicating diseases such as Polio and Malaria, and in the case of the former they have almost succeeded. All their programmes involve collaborations, usually across sectors.  I don’t want to give the impression that we are strangers to successful collaboration here in the UK. There are many examples I could give from Migration Exchange to the Environmental Funders Network, and others which you can read about on the Hub website. But Gates are an instructive example because if collaboration is a necessity for them with all their money, then it is very likely to be so for the rest of us too.

The real point here is there needs to be some symmetry between the ends you are pursuing, and the methods you deploy. If you want to ambitiously pursue social change, then the nature of that task is likely to demand that at least some of the time you work in partnership. The full impact of the Coronavirus crisis is not yet visible, but it is already clear that it is going to change the world in many ways. The nature of our recovery as a society can be more, or less, positive. Civil society needs to play a full part in ensuring we get the more benign version. That seems to me exactly the kind of complicated and ambitious aim where collaboration will be desirable.

But what about the argument that collaboration can be an absolute pain? It is true it is often hard work, it can be slow, and it involves constant compromise. Not all collaborations work out either. Isn’t it easier to just to get on and do it yourself? To that I would say of course collaboration is hard, because social change is hard. The tough work of building partnerships is not a distraction from our real work, it is the real work.

Does that mean you should stick with difficult partnerships at all costs? No of course not. We must be critical and selective. There is an art to selecting the right collaborations and relationships, and a skill to making them perform. That is why the Hub is so welcome. Most funders don’t have the time and resources to spend ages working out who to talk to, or to learn the hard way what works and what doesn’t. Here’s where the Hub can help. It aims to provide a space for the conversations that are at the heart of collaboration. And to provide help and resources to make collaboration easier. Where to start? How to approach it? Who to talk to? Where are the gaps? These are some of the questions it can help answer.

The first step is the website which launches today as a pilot, accompanied by a programme of events. The platform is a place for you to talk about your own collaborations, share what you’ve learnt and set out your stall if you want to encourage others to participate. And if have ideas or you want to be connected with others, get in touch (policy@acf.org.uk) and we will do our best to help.

These are early days and what the Hub offers is still being developed. So please give us your feedback so that together we can build something that really works, because in these unprecedented times collaboration is a tool we cannot ignore.

Rob Abercrombie is interim project lead for the Collaboration Hub. He was previously Director of Programmes and Partnerships at The Royal Foundation, and Director of Research and Consulting at NPC.