How Funders can encourage collaborative working

How Funders can encourage collaborative working
Date: 26/10/10
Author: Clare Cooper

Over the last two years, MMM has been supporting six groups of arts and cultural organisations in Scotland and the North East of England who have been piloting new ways of collaborating. Learning from the pilots has been turned into a suite of materials, the first of which Fuelling the Necessary Revolution has just been published. It has been written especially for public and private funders in order to persuade them to encourage and support more collaboration in the sector. This extract summarises what they can do to help.

Observations and reflections from the pilot participants and recommendations made in the wider literature of non-profit collaboration[1] offer a clear set of interventions that funders could consider in order to encourage and support collaborative working. All of these offer the opportunity for funders to take a leadership role in enabling new ways of thinking and new ways of doing which will evolve the way creative practice is valued, organised and financed.

Connecting potential collaborators through convening power As well as financial resources, funders have significant ‘convening power’ that can be marshaled to catalyse collaborative working. Creating opportunities for individuals and organisations to meet and explore new collaboration ideas through ‘bootcamps’ or other more traditional kinds of seminar and conference-style events can rapidly build new communities of interest and networks around areas of common interest or concern. Such events could be organised to enable participants to identify for themselves a possible focus for a collaboration, for example through ‘open space’ approaches, or be structured to attract those interested in something very specific, such as fundraising in a particular locality, or something universally relevant such as resource scarcity and climate change.

Building on existing assets and encouraging knowledge transfer Funders could identify where collaborative working is already happening well or beginning to emerge, and provide support to enable it to grow further or faster. They could incentivise knowledge transfer by financing peer-led knowledge networks that enable organisation leaders experienced in collaborative working to share best practice with others starting out. This would help to avoid the ‘re-inventing the wheel’ syndrome, and at the same time build the field in ways that make it easier for this way of working to become more mainstream. As two pilot participants remarked: ‘We are always collaborating, bringing either individual creative people together or collaborating with other organisations, and in the last 12 months we have had half a dozen collaborations on different scales… there is an awful lot of know-how there that could be harnessed’, and ‘The message for funders that I would give is to fund the points of collaboration that already exist or emerge, rather than putting in place a structure, that you hope will deliver that… if they work harder at seeking out at what points of intersection there already are and directing their funding to that, I think that would be a cost effective way of encouraging more collaboration.’

Supporting the costs of technical assistance (TA) Funders need to be creative and flexible in how they approach, allocate and distribute grants to support the true costs of collaboration, especially the different kinds of TA needed at different stages, which will be unique to each collaboration. MMM offered each pilot £50,000 to use in whatever way was appropriate to develop the early stage of their collaboration. It was not directive in how the money should be spent, nor in which TA provider was hired or at what cost. It used its network to help identify potential suppliers of TA where it could and advised, if asked, on commissioning documents and briefs. This supportive but unobtrusive role was appreciated by pilot participants and helped to create an ethos of mutual problem solving. Releasing TA support in alignment with the three stages proposed in section 8 (Evaluating opportunities for collaboration, Spotting barriers to collaboration and Tailoring solutions to tear down the barriers to collaborating), with an emphasis on supporting stages two and three, could encourage groups to ensure that the right levels of commitment to the shared vision are present and able to drive the collaboration forward. However, it is important that funders have a realistic expectation of the pace at which the collaboration can move forward.

Support for the pilots was enabled by a partnership of three funders, The Northern Rock Foundation, Arts Council England and the then Scottish Arts Council. Similar funder collaboratives are being set up in America[2]with the aim of helping not for profits develop shared back-office professional functions, such as financial oversight, joint purchasing agreements, partnerships or joint ventures in shared enterprises, and, where appropriate, full mergers of established organisations. More funding partnerships of this kind in the UK would help fuel more collaborative endeavours.

MMM would advocate that funders reflect on the learning from the pilot projects and critique their own CQAs to collaborate, both with their peers in the public and private funding community and with others, including those they fund.

MMM’s 2007 provocation ‘The Art of Living’[3] proposed a variety of collaborative responses that public and private funders could make to tackling the arts and cultural sectors endemic overextension and undercapitalisation. These continue to be in urgent need of response, even more so in the light of current operating environment. Collaborative strategies by funders prioritising the building of financial resilience in the arts and cultural sector at this time for example could have significant impact on the sector’s ability to survive and thrive in the short term and could effect change much more quickly than individual funders working alone.[4]

About re.volution
Leaders of the arts and cultural ecology want an end to trying to do too much, with too little, too often on their own.
The human and financial cost of this over-extension and under-capitalisation is increasing, driven by accelerating change and uncertainty in the external operating environment. re.volution aimed to help resolve these systemic issues by utilising the passion, experience and expertise of art and culture’s greatest asset. Its people.

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