ACF’s Conference – Collaborating in a crisis

This year’s ACF conference takes place against the backdrop of Covid and its impacts on society – including civil society. A major theme at conference will be how more effective collaboration can help at this time, particularly as many charities have seen their income plummet while demand for their services has risen.

I’ll be chairing a session at ACF conference which will hear from four current funder collaborations from across the UK and the Channel Islands, each of which is responding to the current complex and challenging context in different, innovative ways.

Collaboration itself can 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 a under 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.

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’s why we’ve launched the Funders Collaborative Hub  to help funders find out who to talk to about collaboration and discuss and learn about what works and what doesn’t.

Linked to that, I’ll also be chairing a session at the ACF conference on collaboration. This will look at case studies of foundation collaboration against the background of the Covid Crisis. We’ll be hearing from Clare Carter, Deputy CEO, The Access to Justice Foundation; John Dawson, Head of Social Investment Programmes, Power to Change; Jenny Field, Deputy Director, City Bridge Trust; and Katie Le Quesne, Chair, Jersey Funders Group about their experience about responding to the current complex and challenging context in different, innovative ways.

You can book your place at the conference and join the debate at

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.

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