Collaborating with the “other”: What have we learned?

November 25, 2019
Hilary Pearson

How do you work, as a philanthropic funder, with the “other”?  The “other” can be someone you don’t know, or who you don’t agree with, or who responds to different expectations, drivers or accountabilities.  Is it possible? Is it necessary? And is it worthwhile? At the recent PFC symposium in Calgary, Alberta, foundations explored these questions around the theme of Working Across Boundaries

Funders have a motive for exploring cross boundary work right now. Canada and the world are facing issues that are both urgent to solve and complex in nature. And there isn’t wide agreement on solutions, far from it. Faced with this complexity and polarization, funders can see that taking an individual perspective or approach isn’t going to get them far.  When no one has the answer, many must put their heads together. As Allyson Hewitt  of MaRS moderator of the very articulate opening panel at the conference, said succinctly:” we all bring something to the table.”

What did we learn in Calgary about working across boundaries? I heard many thoughtful conversations about what it takes. Allyson Hewitt and James Stauch  of Mount Royal University  powerfully set the frame and summed up the insights in their opening and closing comments (well worth a view on video).  Reflecting on their comments, I found myself returning to four connected and key ideas about cross-boundary collaboration for funders: time, flexibility, trust and courage .  

Time is important, and more is always needed, if only for all to get to agreement on the problem that is being worked on (as Allyson remarked, sometimes at the beginning you can only get to agreement on the basics: “yes the carpet is a carpet”. When you meet the “other”, it takes time to understand their realities. Many things are not what you expect. Taking time to understand is a necessary preliminary to action, and is action in itself. 

Flexibility is often what you don’t have as a funder in a collaboration.  The accountabilities and expectations of other players can be rigid (think of a private foundation working with a large corporation or a government department). And the regulatory environment for Canadian charities is a less than flexible constraint, not an enabler, when it comes to working across sectors.  CRA regulations can dampen or prevent collaborative work between charities and non-charities. CRA guidelines and opinions don’t demonstrate a flexibility based on risk assessment or previous record. And this can impede good and necessary work. But conversely, private funders can be more flexible than other players and can use that flexibility for innovation and creativity in the work. They can also accept more ambiguity, which may be important when the outcomes are uncertain.

Trust is certainly basic to good collaboration. It is fundamental to establishing the relationships that allow collaborations to flourish and collaborators to “work a problem” together.  Trust of course takes time. It also takes a willingness to go beyond what is known or safe in order to establish and prove it. Funders can learn to build trust, if they already have the courage to try working across boundaries. 

And courage is absolutely necessary to doing cross-boundary work.  You need courage as a funder to enter into collaborations. You need the courage to take risk in doing something that may have no previous track record or no safety net. And in being vulnerable to failures.  As well, courage is needed to engage with the “unusual suspects”. These could be critics, or challengers to the status quo (think of young leaders challenging “how it’s done” or community leaders challenging “who decides” or corporate leaders challenging “green economy versus jobs”).  Funders need courage to engage with disruption.

So...time, flexibility, trust and courage. To do what?  The conference speakers suggested that the most important things that funders can do through cross-boundary work is to “hold the space” for conversations, for reflections, for building trust and relationships. James Stauch put it this way in his closing summary: “Philanthropy’s role is critical in bridging the divide, in promoting counter-narratives to simplistic binary thinking and in demonstrating alternative community and economic models….Relationships are critical not just to moving across boundaries but to co-creating new futures.” These are the big challenges for funders, Stauch concluded: “To create prosperity for communities in a carbon-constrained world. To help rescue and strengthen democracy in a truth-constrained world.  And to change our institutions, our networks and ourselves to get there.” With time, flexibility, trust and courage.

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