In the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about how and when great collaboration happens, and the rising desire for more systemic forms of change.

It’s clear that the pandemic has brought the not-for-profit and charity sector together in new ways; with a huge increase in online gatherings to share data, experience, ambition and advocacy activities. And I have been increasingly wondering about the role of funders in incentivising collaboration; particularly collaboration and partnership across different disciplines and sectors. In this very quick post, I’ve jotted down four thoughts that have bubbled up, and am interested in other people’s thoughts, builds & feedback.

1. Forecasting philanthropy

The very wonderful 360 Giving initiative gathers grant making data from all its members, and it’s been brilliant to make use make use of that data in publications like Flipping the Coin and Patchwork Philanthropy: setting out the combined distribution of public, charitable and philanthropic giving across England. But would it be a more interesting experiment for all those signed up to 360 Giving to share data about projections of where funding may be  spent in 2021/22 and beyond? Namely, projections about likely demography & geography of interest, impact focus and quantum of funding. If only as an exercise (and an excuse) to collectively reflect on philanthropic strategies across the board, and explore opportunities for deeper philanthropic collaboration; based on having some tangible future-facing data to look at and talk about together.

2. Accept – and aspire to transcend – the confines of competition

Most, if not all, organisations seeking funding are 100% enabled to undertake their work by the gifts and generosity of others. Regardless of how open or transparent the process, there has always been an understanding that accessing funding is a competitive process; and that financial resources are limited and so should be directed through a combination of demand (is it needed?), evidence (does it work? – or at least sound like it would) and credibility (are these the folk best placed to do it?) This lies at the heart of all funding processes, with varying degrees of awareness about how bias, the malleability of evidence, and prior experience or knowledge of the applicant shapes those decisions – as much as any right and proper interrogation.

The one thing that has snuck into funding parlance over the last two years or so has been another kind of question: ‘It is systemic?’ or ‘Is it ‘driving systems change?’ And these are good questions to be asking. The problem though, is the combination of the competitive process – which cleaves organisations, sectors and types of funding apart – and the desire for system change. Ladling expectations of ‘system change’ on an individual organisation is quite the burden and these questions really seem like a proxy for asking whether the idea or project is trying to tackle or disrupt the root cause of an issue. Still a problematic question for an individual organisation or intervention – but easier to answer without succumbing to language that can end up smelling a bit rural.

Are competitive funding streams designed to support individual organisations more or less likely to effect ‘systemic change’? Do we need to rethink the funding regimes and supporting infrastructure that keep the system apart? As much as rethinking the kinds and types of initiatives that are put forward for consideration to funders.

3. Funding for time and space to see the wider system together

In the nicest possible way, I think it’s easy for employees within funding organisations to think like generals; looking from a hilltop over wide open ground. Various projects, people and interventions are in play, and viewed from afar they make lots of sense; they might even cohere into a highly intelligent and elegant strategic mission, which when explained reveals a narrative of good impact. But in most cases that overall picture is not visible from the ground. And arguably, it’s impact is compromised without that collective visibility and hyper-localised input. The Emerging Futures Fund is a great example of supporting many different organisations to explore ideas on a specific broad theme, and at the same time creating space to see the wider system, and space for exploration of those ideas together.

It would be interesting to take that idea much further; through more cohort-based funding initiatives -specifically funding groups of organisations to work in concert; and creating space and the right incentives to enable those actors to share and benefit from each others work.  It could also have wider reaching impact in building collaboration and strategic relationships between like-missioned organisations – and just as crucially, between organisations from different sectors and disciplines. Should there be more funds  which have direct, explicit incentives to transcend sectoral boundaries; co-mingling funds to suit different sectors and entity types? Which leads me to point 4…

4. Support and fund more inter-sector and interdisciplinary collaboration

At The Young Foundation, we’re often found working at the boundaries of different disciplines and realities. Sometimes those boundaries are hard: such as the boundaries between universities and place-based communities, or between big business and the social economy. Sometimes those boundaries are more philosophical and fluid: such as where place and identity meet; or one belief system meets another. Increasingly, any initiative that isn’t in some way recognising or more actively working with different sectors or different realities to create positive change feels incomplete to me.

Well over a decade ago now, my previous employer Nesta was involved in The Crucible programme, a learning and development opportunity connecting scientists to politicians and journalists. While my memory of the work has no doubt been distorted, it has stuck in my mind as having one key principle at work: to bridge across disciplines and sectors to help scientists communicate their work in ways that non-scientists could understand and get involved in. I recall the programme was focused on building relationships between individuals with wildly varying lexicons, languages and working cultures – to work together to advance public engagement in science, research and innovation.

Listening to Ottoline Leyser at the Engage Festival yesterday, setting out a thoughtful, boundary spanning view of the research and innovation ecosystem, I was struck by how far we are yet to travel on this journey. There is so much work to rethink and redesign the systems and incentives that have ‘balkanised’ different disciplines and have created strong bonds of uni-disciplined groups, held in magnetic opposition to one other, swerving at all costs to avoid contact.

Through the Institute for Community Studies, we’re working in microcosm on this issue; trying to hold different disciplines and realities within one entity; experimenting in how those boundaries of academic evidence, lived experiences and emerging innovative practice come together – it’s tough work – and it’s also incredibly energising.

As we emerge from the pandemic, into a long period of (hopeful) recovery, there are some unique opportunities for how research and innovation funders, and funders across government and the philanthropic sector, design for and incentivise collaboration and boundary spanning work to address systemic challenges. And much more that could be written beyond this short note. But for now, it feels like there are a two core principles that need to underpin any vision, which are: A commitment to ecosystem input into ecosystem-based strategies. Any funding or powerful organisation wishing to support an ecosystem or system change needs to absorb intelligence from the ecosystem; preferably often – as a living process. And second, we should also expect and invite difference. Setting expectations that different, diverse people, with different views, cultures, religions, experiences, disciplines, backgrounds, professions and politics are needed and welcome. Where difference and diversity is held up as a creative force for positive change. And where, in the words of UKRI CEO yesterday, “changing your mind is not seen as a weakness” – but rather, the point of exposing yourself to new people, learning and ideas.

Inequality Posted on: 3 December 2020 Authors: Helen Goulden OBE,


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