Funder curates visionary coalitions
Funders set up in perpetuity can afford to take a long-term approach to investments enabling them to build coalitions where more can be achieved.
Andrew Barnett believes that collaboration is a matter of head and heart.
SVA Consulting advisor Jon Huggett identified Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s UK Branch as a good example of an organisation which takes a lead in cultivating coalitions among funders and the social sector – with insights for similar organisations in Australia.
Huggett talks to Andrew Barnett, the UK Branch Director, about how the organisation does this, and the special role that charitable foundations can play because of their relationship with time: they not only bring capital, but can also bring patience.
JH: Could you tell us a little about Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation?
AB: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF) is a US$3.5 billion foundation based in Lisbon, Portugal. It was created in 1956 using the bequest of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian who took British citizenship and later settled in Portugal. The UK Branch has been active for over 50 years. It provided seed corn funding for some of the now famous names in the charitable sector, pioneered arts education and has always had a special interest in addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged.
JH: Why is collaboration a priority for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation?
AB: This is a matter of heart and head. My heart tells me that we can achieve more together than we can alone. My head says to me that for an organisation like the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation collaboration isn’t just needed, it is essential.
Better a smaller slice of a bigger pie than a large slice of a smaller one.
Here in the UK, we’re a very small player and we operate at the early stage of the social innovation spectrum. So nothing we do is of any value unless the chain of social innovation is joined up and we work with others so that ideas are developed to scale.
Another reason is that collaboration is in our history. Calouste Gulbenkian himself was an international businessman who built his wealth on the back of one of the biggest consortiums the world has known. He spotted the potential for oil exploration in Mesopotamia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, now Iraq, and is best known for creating the structures which enabled the orderly development of Middle Eastern oil production. He did so by working with the governments of some of the largest and most influential countries at the time.
Gulbenkian did not plough an isolated field. He recognised that it was only possible to make money by working with other people and often said: ‘Better a smaller slice of a bigger pie than a large slice of a smaller one’.
…we need to provide the mechanisms under which different disciplines can be brought together but retain their specialism and distinctiveness and then enable people to navigate these effectively.
The third driver for collaboration is recognition that there are some problems in society that we’ve been unable to address. These are complex issues for which one-size solutions don’t fit. You can look at these problems in different ways: you can say that what we need are monolithic institutions that can bring under one roof services that seek to deliver across a wide range of problems; or you can say that we need to provide the mechanisms under which different disciplines can be brought together but retain their specialism and distinctiveness and then enable people to navigate these effectively. There’s something critically important about saying there are different ways of organising ourselves other than being one big body so that services can be better tailored to the complexity and reality of humanity.
Finally – and this requires an emotional commitment too – it is understanding that actually we don’t act independently. Charitable foundations talk about being independent. We’re not. We might have autonomy but we’re interdependent. Everything we do affects some element of a wider system.
JH: Why is it so hard then?
AB: I think it springs from the misplaced notion of being independent. We’ve treasured that and often thought that it means working in an isolated way.
It’s interesting that in a competitive for-profit world, there are more examples of collaboration than amongst organisations committed to social change.
It comes back to the notion of independence; it’s dangerous and talks us out of collaboration.
As charitable foundations, we’re a decent group of people between whom there’s a very high level of goodwill and trust. Compare us to a sector like the financial services industry which is very cut-throat. Yet, while they have no difficulty in syndicating deals, we struggle to foster the collaboration necessary for the aggregate impact to be greater than the sum of our individual contributions.
It comes back to the notion of independence; it’s dangerous and talks us out of collaboration. While there are many people considering collaboration, there are a lot less actually doing it.
Having said that, over the past six years I’ve noticed a step change in the approach that organisations are taking. There are a myriad of really good examples where charitable organisations have come together on particular issues.
JH: So which collaborations has CGF been part of?
AB: Where we’ve taken the leap is in funder and fundee collaborations. Two examples are the coalition MEAM and the Campaign to End Loneliness.
MEAM – Making Every Adult Matter – is a confederation of four collaborations. Clinks, DrugScope, Homeless Link and Mind are each membership organisations. They cover criminal justice, drug and alcohol treatment, homelessness and mental health, respectively. MEAM helps integrate and link programs; and provides coherent advocacy for people with multiple needs.
The Campaign to End Loneliness was founded in 2011 as a collaboration of five organisations in the UK to bring together another 1,400 organisations and people working to build connections in old age.
…we need to look at organisations that are different and bring together qualities that compliment each other rather than duplicate each other.
These are not coalitions of equals but coalitions of organisations who treat each other as equals and who bring completely different things to the table. Their strength is in their difference; that’s where we can push collaboration more.
It has been easier to forge collaborations when organisations are similar, certainly with charitable foundations. But we need to look at organisations that are different and bring together qualities that compliment each other rather than duplicate each other.
Let’s be different and come together where we can and do together what we can; optimising collaboration not chasing the maximum amount of it. Let’s not morph into one single entity with a giant portal – or dive into one big pool – and drive out the very special qualities that exist in a pluralistic system.
The important issue for foundations is purpose and personality, which is what distinguishes us as organisations, and prevents us from becoming one big monolith with one view of the world.
JH: How do you go about convening or facilitating these collaborations?
AB: It’s a mistake to try and force this stuff. You need to try and create the conditions under which it happens naturally. It’s an organic process.
The way we do this is through careful curation of different sorts of organisations who have an apparent shared interest in solving a problem.
There’s increasing recognition that to tackle the world’s big problems you need to look at the system and determine where to best play – either on your own or with others.
The role of an organisation like us is to act as a curator and critical friend but recognise that this stuff takes time.
MEAM is one example of a group that has come together to try and drive system change. Each of the four membership organisations recognise that they quite often deal with the same people, who have experienced two or more of the four problems that the organisations address. These problems are totally interrelated, yet our system has traditionally dealt with them separately.
MEAM brings four organisations together to carry out policy work they couldn’t have done apart and to pilot more coordinated service delivery solutions on the ground, and to evaluate the cost benefit of doing that.
We were anchor funders; we catalysed the relationship between those organisations. We provided adaptive leadership to the group: bringing them together, allowing them to talk, asking the right questions including some difficult ones, and giving them the support to take ownership of the next stage. The role of an organisation like us is to act as a curator and critical friend but recognise that this stuff takes time.
Some of those sorts of collaboration can be built from the very beginning while others are looser. We have a long history of other funders picking our stuff up – what we might call funder alignment – which is totally organic rather than forced.
It requires a lot of trust. We keep an eye on them and try to nudge them but don’t hang over them as if we’re trying to watch a kettle boil.
We’ve got quite good examples of curating relationships with organisations (not funders) that have different qualities and strengths whether in advocacy, service delivery or in other fields, such that they can come together to address a particular problem.
You need a big, clear problem and a shared commitment to addressing it. You need a small number of initial players (so as not to overcomplicate it) and start with some smallish projects which you start together. And you allow those to grow over time by injecting strategy at each stage.
It requires a lot of trust. We keep an eye on them and try to nudge them but don’t hang over them as if we’re trying to watch a kettle boil.
JH: When you see a collaboration, how do you know it is working?
AB: There’s more teamwork. Because these things are as much about the dynamics as about the outcomes, a good proxy for success is when you can see norming coming from the storming. You can probably count that the time it takes to get from one to the other is much the same time as it takes to get from the norming to the performing. It is as much about time and dynamics as easy-to-capture, attributable or even non-attributable outcomes.
As with any strong team, you need people who play complementary roles.
All these collaborations are made up of organisations that consist of human beings. As with any strong team, you need people who play complementary roles.
The MEAM coalition began effectively with rotating facilitation, and there was a point that we reached when we collectively agreed it would be beneficial to have independent facilitation. Since the appointment of an independent chair six months ago, we’ve seen a deepening of the organisations’ commitment to what they are trying to achieve: a renewed focus on strategy and vision and how to achieve these. It’s provided the necessary injection of strategy without which independent chairing is possible but less likely. There’s a point when you can introduce this even if it’s not there at the start.
JH: What’s one thing you see that has worked well with MEAM?
AB: One of the beauties of coming together as a coalition is that it doesn’t ossify the work that needs to be done at a given time to solve the problem. In the social sector, we’ve got a mistaken belief that we have a right to exist into perpetuity. But we’re trying to solve problems and once we’ve solved problems we should perhaps look for another problem or, if in a coalition, to disband.
MEAM will never be incorporated; that’s its defining quality. It will always remain a coalition. What it’s doing is to model the behaviours that the group want to see on the ground. That’s their value proposition.
Maybe once the behaviours begin to happen on the ground, there may no longer be a role for that at the higher level.
Jon Huggett, SVA Consulting advisor.
JH: Tell us about Collaborate, the Institute, and what your biggest hope for it is?
AB: Collaborate is based at London South Bank University and promotes collaboration between the public, business and social sectors. It is, itself, a collaboration that includes the University, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the National Housing Federation, Anthony Collins (a law firm), and Serco (a private company).
You can’t talk about collaboration and not act collaboratively yourself.
There’s a principle that absolutely has to apply to the work of Collaborate. It has to be totally porous in the way it operates. Everything should be done in partnership; never on one’s own. You can’t talk about collaboration and not act collaboratively yourself. That overriding principle has to apply to all that it does.
One of the distinctive qualities of Collaborate is that it has sought to bring in the private sector.
It has the scope to look at the range of issues that confront cross-sector collaboration, for example in public-sector commissioning. It can do research and policy work with collaboration increasingly as the platform.
Potentially another strand of work is to convene peak organisations to explore how they might work together. There’s an interesting example of this in Europe: the Network of European Foundations. A number of us, including my colleagues in Lisbon, put seed funding into an incubating platform for organisations that want to work on the same issues but in a slightly different way.
…can allow us to inculcate the next generation of public leaders and managers with the understanding that you don’t need to do everything all by yourselves…
The third strand is the value of being attached to the South Bank University, which provides the opportunity to do primary research and then to translate this into a new paradigm for the benefit of individuals studying public administration. This can allow us to inculcate the next generation of public leaders and managers with the understanding that you don’t need to do everything all by yourselves – this is one of the traps in the charitable sector that wouldn’t happen in the private sector – and that in fact, collaboration can happen and different chains can be formed.
JH: Is visionary leadership important for these collaborations?
AB: Being able to see the problem and have a vision for how we can address it differently is one of a range of qualities you require in the individuals representing organisations.
It’s about people and organisations understanding what they are good at and bringing those attributes respectively to the table…
However different people can play to those different roles and to respective strengths. It’s about people and organisations understanding what they are good at and bringing those attributes respectively to the table; and finding their sweet point.
We prefer a collaboration of good people doing smart things to a smart person doing good things. I duck any suggestion that I might be the visionary! You need a critical mass of necessary qualities.
JH: What other models of collaboration work for foundations?
AB: I’ve explained this from the perspective of the funded. From the other end, there’s the collaboration between the Baring Foundation and the Arts Council (England) – both funders – which is investing in the arts for older people in residential care. It’s a bilateral collaboration but of a David and a Goliath. The Baring Foundation is small, thoughtful and agile. The Arts Council is big: a national arts funding body with enormous reach. What they are doing has the potential to scale up. They’ve got organisations with larger resources and reach into these.
There’s also the multi-lateral funding collaboration, the Corston Coalition, which had 20 funders. Prompted by a report on the issues faced by women in prison, a small group of funders came together and others have come on board over time. It’s been very influential.
Follow-on funding like this is something we all need to be more relaxed about…
MEAM is a different model again. It started as a single funder with a number of different entities, so it was a relationship between funder and fundees. However, the coalition has brought on additional funders subsequent to our seeding it and we welcome that.
Follow-on funding like this is something we all need to be more relaxed about and get our heads around if we are going to play our part in the ecology of social change, which requires some organisations to be able to experiment and take risks, and others who are less capable of taking risks are able to scale the solutions.
JH: You mentioned autonomy of charitable foundations. What is the value and potential of this autonomy?
AB: One of the features of the autonomous charitable foundation is that we can make our own decisions regardless of what the world ‘out there’ is thinking. This is valuable in the work we’ve been doing exploring different finance models.
With others, we have been looking at how a multi-investor fund can be put together to capitalise small arts organisations that have the potential to generate sustainable revenue streams. To pilot that, we are exploring a co-mingle fund in which different investors take differential risks with some taking potential first losses. Monetisation, in which different organisations contribute equally to a fund with different levels of risk and returns, is an interesting prism to look at this through. That could be as true in areas where you have quantified social returns as in invested endowments like ours where you’ve got quantified financial returns.
… charitable foundations that have been set up in perpetuity have all the time in the world.
This means that some of us, given the support of trustees who are stewards of our resources and reputation, can be less interested in short term attributable outcomes than some others who may need to be more interested in them.
There are three different dimensions at play here: return, risk and time. Time is the undervalued one. The reality is that charitable foundations that have been set up in perpetuity have all the time in the world. Even though we may feel impatient – and taking a time-limited approach is a good discipline – we should remember the adage that we tend to overemphasise what can be achieved in the short-term and underestimate what can be achieved in the long-term. We can look at the long-term horizon and gauge the right pace.
Our autonomy enables us to build coalitions where more can be achieved overall with different sorts of returns, social or otherwise, going back to different players. Charitable foundations have quite a unique space in which we can play.
About Andrew Barnett
Andrew Barnett has been Director of the UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation since 2007 which he joined from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation where he was Director of Policy and Communications. He was previously worked at the UK Sports Council and, before that, as Head of Public Affairs at the National Consumer Council. Andrew has held posts at HSBC Holdings, the Arts Council of England, and the Foyer Federation for Youth, as well for the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness.
He is a board member of Collaborate and of the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), a trustee of Addaction, the UK’s leading specialist drug and alcohol treatment charity, and has previously served as chair of DV8 Physical Theatre, SPACE artist studios, and a director of Yorkshire Housing.
About Jon Huggett
Jon Huggett is an SVA Consulting advisor and former Partner of Bridgespan non-profit consulting firm in the USA. He is a visiting fellow at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, and founder of The Third Foundation, where he advises social enterprise leaders worldwide.