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Stars Foundation invests in organisations and ideas that transform the lives of disadvantaged children and their communities globally.

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Collaborating on Collaboration

Posted by: Ashley on 23 Apr 2013
in Blog

A version of this blog was originally posted on the ACF Funders Network site.

When I first pitched this blog post, it was intended to complement an article by my colleague, David Crook, Development Director at Stars, published in this quarter's ACF Trust & Foundation News. In his article, David describes our recent experience of commissioning research into the relationship dynamics between funders and the organisations they fund.

And while I do intend to talk about the research, it will be in a way slightly less sycophantic than you might have expected…

Allow me to explain.

A couple of weeks ago, with senior colleagues pulled away by meetings and child care duties, I volunteered to go to a panel discussion on (buzzword alert!) collaboration between funders, charities and the private sector.

The well-attended – and equally well-catered – affair was followed by breakout sessions at individual tables. One by one we were asked to introduce ourselves; I was fourth. Having come prepared with my 'elevator pitch' on Stars and our recent research into collaboration and partnerships, I was suddenly lost for words.

You see, at least two of the people preceding me used their introductions to talk about their recent research into collaboration and partnerships. By the time we got round the rest of the table, it was almost laughable at the scale of the overlap.

A symptom of our buzzword culture is that we – and here I mean NGOs, funders, the public and private sectors – can sometimes lurch toward The Next Big Thing in development. We want to claim a space in emerging areas, and to bask in any residual glow from the spotlight each new trend attracts. But we do this so often in isolation – all talking about the same subject, but each trying to own it and no one really, genuinely, collaborating.

We had each done research – thought-provoking, rigorous and useful as it might have been – into the characteristics of collaboration. But none of us had actually collaborated on the research itself.

It made me question the framework of the entire event. Ostensibly, we were there to speak about how to better work together in order to maximise our impact. But by only speaking about cross-sector collaborations, and ignoring intra-sector partnerships, were we making a huge mistake?

I think this myopia comes down to some rather simple home truths about human behaviour not unique to those working in the charity space:

  1. We do not always recognise the power inherent within our own peer group, and can instead long for different modes of power held by other actors.
  2. We may at times be too proud, too cynical or simply too busy to recognise that pooling resources, dividing workload and sharing success might actually achieve our most ambitious goals much more effectively than if we tried to go it alone.

Of course, collaboration only really works when the partnership meets the needs and expectations of all parties involved. We don't need to seek out collaborative relationships all the time, but more of the time just might prove catalytic.

So, read our research on collaboration. And read my colleague's article about it. We'd love to know what you think. After all, it might be the last time we do something like this… on our own, that is.