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Fostering Collaboration Among Environmental NGOs (and Beyond): How Funders Can Help

In our 2013 survey of 139 chief executives of environmental organizations (Passionate Collaboration?), the Environmental Funders Network heard repeated calls for increased collaboration within the sector and across sectors. Respondents called for “a more joined up sector,” “to create something greater than the sum of its parts,” to “see the inter-relatedness of social and environmental issues, [and] work across boundaries,” and so on. Increased collaboration would reap significant benefits: “Working together amplifies the call for change and progress,” said one respondent. “Unless the environment sector—the plethora of individual NGOs—start to draw up a battle plan and work together, we will continue to be relatively marginal and ineffective in changing the culture and legislation in this country,” said another.

Respondents also articulated several of the barriers to successful collaboration: that it takes significant time, that organizations are often nervous about what other organisations’ real motivations might be, that building trust (which, again, takes considerable time) is crucial. As one respondent said, “Doing strategy within an organisation is hard enough, doing it across organisations is quite hard. Joint strategy only works when you’ve got shared values properly shared.” Another respondent said, “Collaboration from my experience only happens between organisations who know each other and can identify a crossover of skills/knowledge—often relationships that start down the pub! This leads to a replication of collaborations restricted largely by social connections or geographical ones.”

EFN convened a group of NGO leaders to ask how funders might act differently to foster collaboration more effectively. Here’s what they proposed:

1) Play a Convening Role
Funders have the benefit of having an overview of the sector (or parts of it). They could play a stronger role introducing organizations to one another, helping to make connections between small and large organizations, organizations with complementary skills, and so on. Proactively suggesting collaborations in a constructive—not pushy—way might be welcomed, depending on how it was done. Funders often have a better idea of who is doing what; using that knowledge to foster collaboration by convening different organizations could potentially be very useful. Even if those groups do not actively collaborate, they may be able to align or coordinate their activities better.

If you are a generalist funder, consider convening environmental grantees with others working on other issues to encourage collaboration across sectors. Help your grantees make the connections between environmental and social well-being.

2) Incentivize Collaboration, Don’t Punish It
Some funding programmes actively ‘punish’ collaboration by limiting applicants to one application. Organizations willing to be partners on a collaborative effort are therefore unable to apply for funding for different projects of their own. Treat collaborative applications as separate from each other and from applications from individual organizations.

To further incentivize collaboration, be clear during project development that, if justified, more financial support might be made available if more partners are on board—create a bigger pie instead of cutting smaller slices.

Where suitable, consider encouraging larger organizations to partner with more local, on-the-ground groups in order to apply for funding.

3) Support Collaborators
Consider actively directing your funding towards those groups that are already collaborators. Look at the structure and modus operandi of the applicant. Supporting applicants that have partnership elements built into their structure, or who have a strong track record of building, or contributing to, successful partnerships, is likely to foster organisations that will form successful policy and delivery partnerships in the future.

Simply being explicit in your grantmaking materials that you look favourably on collaborative efforts can be an incentive to encourage organizations to think more seriously about working with others.

4) Create Opportunities for Relationships to Develop
Funders putting on events for people (particularly those in leadership roles) from different organizations to meet and socialize could potentially be very useful. The events would need some kind of draw to justify the time taken away from the office (for example, a high profile speaker, or a focused discussion on a particular issue or skillset, or well-facilitated speed-dating), but should provide relaxed time for networking, e.g. a cocktail hour. Invitations from funders to such events would probably provide a strong incentive for people to show up. NGO leaders don’t always take the time to go out and enjoy a meal or a drink with one another, but those are the kinds of situations that build trust, develop relationships and seed collaborations.

5) Sponsor an Annual Funding Competition for Collaborative Campaigns
A funder (or several funders) could create a funding pot to which groups apply for joint campaigning to achieve big-impact political-societal outcomes. An annual competition for the money could draw enough attention to pique the interest of many organisations. Many groups are hesitant to collaborate as it raises the costs of working, but if the pot of money was big enough and the guidelines explicit about understanding the greater costs of collaboration, more people might be more interested in applying.

6) Map the Sector
Fund the creation of a ‘map’ of who is doing what in the sector. What organizations are out there? Which issues do they work on? Where are they working?

7) Fund a Coordinator to Foster Collaboration
A paid coordinator could help take on some of the initial work that goes into developing collaborations. They would be available to help environmental groups looking to collaborate on particular issues and would take on the task of scanning the field, identifying potential partners and connecting organizations with one another.

8) Understand that Collaboration Costs More—And Be Explicit That You Support It
The effort required for successful collaboration costs more—more time is needed to build trust, develop relationships, hash out common vision and strategy, than would be needed in a project taken on by a single organization. Be prepared to spend more on a collaborative effort, with the potential for greater return.

In EFN’s latest member survey (spring 2016), about a quarter of the responding foundations told us that, following the publication of Passionate Collaboration?, they had “provided support for initiatives aiming to reduce barriers to collaboration within the sector”.

It would be really useful to hear from you. Does the sector still need more support for collaboration? If you are a funder, what are you doing to support collaboration in the sector? If you’re a grant recipient, what are your funders doing (or not doing) to help you collaborate more? What kinds of support would you like to see more of?

Florence Miller is EFN’s Director.

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