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How cause-related networks can help create systems change

Katie Boswell

Philanthropists or charitable funderare uniquely well-placed to support innovation and drive systems change as we rebuild from the Covid-19 crisis. Their independence lets them fund areas that are less popular or seen as risky. They can take the long view and fund areas where change takes time or impact is harder to measure. They can share power and resources with groups that have been historically marginalised.  

In reality, most philanthropic funding is often fragmented, and channelled to areas that reflect the personal passions of the philanthropist rather than where the greatest need is. This is illustrated by the misalignment between where the funding goes and where the greatest need is, about which NPC has written extensively. 

When foundations and philanthropists do analyse the landscape for the cause areas they seek to influence, they often amass data and insights that are not shared with the wider sector. This runs the risk that funders ‘reinvent the wheel’ rather than learning from others.  

Collaborating around a cause

Cause-related networks provide a platform for philanthropists and funders to share knowledge around a cause areasuch as homelessness, health, or young people. These networks can also play more active roles, such as facilitating collaboration, identifying priorities or gaps, and working towards broader and deeper coordination of resources. In some instances, cause-related networks will become cause funds where philanthropists pool their funding to achieve lasting social change in a targeted sector. 

This model offers a way for funders to fund systemically, leveraging the contribution of each in a coordinated way to avoid duplication and maximise impact. We think there should be more cause-related networks. In research commissioned by the Beacon Collaborative, funded by City Bridge Trust and Arts Council England, we reviewed the activities of 62 funder networks worldwide, including 34 based in the UK. We found that some areas—such as human rights or the environment—had active cause-related networks. For other areas—such as education, sport, disabled people, and elderly people—we were not able to identify any cause-related philanthropic networks. It’s encouraging to see work being done by the ACF Funders Collaborative Hub including exploring collaboration in previously neglected areas such as older people. 

We think this approach can do more. As we have emphasised elsewhere on this site, no single organisation is actually able to achieve its mission alone. Only by collaborating and coordinating do we have a chance. For this we need more effective models that allow funders and charities alike to coordinate around shared challenges. Cause-related networks offer the foundation for such a model. By convening diverse members, they can develop a system-wide perspective on an issueidentifying its ‘root causes’ and the actors working on it. They can support members to understand their role within the system, identify gaps between organisations and join up work across an issue 

For example, the Environmental Funders Network regularly shares intelligence, research, and analysis on the funding landscape with its members. This can enable philanthropists to give more strategically and efficiently, by presenting a clearer picture of what change is needed and where their funding can have most impact. 

To maximise their impact, cause-related networks need to pay attention to how their work influences charities, the communities they support, and the wider field. International research on philanthropic collaborations has found that working with networks can increase costs for charities, in terms of managing relationships and the risks of heightened funder power dynamics. Our research identified a risk that networks can ‘further silo already siloed foundations’ through ignoring the intersectionality of issues. A system-wide perspective can mitigate this risk, as can collaborating with other networks to avoid duplication and carve out distinct roles. 

Done well, cause-related networks can support funders to achieve an impact that is more than the sum of their parts. They can support funders to pool knowledge and funds, fill gaps, reduce duplication, and engage with complex issues that may feel too large to tackle individually. They are particularly useful for new philanthropists or philanthropists who are looking to explore issues for the first time, although more experienced funders will also benefit from exchanging learning. We think they are a vital tool to help funders to work together to rebuild from Covid-19. 

Growing the idea

If you would like to set up a cause-related network or support our work to spread this concept, please let us know.

We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions, comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…

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Eve Castelow

Great to read this piece. It’s really resonating with our thinking at Royal Mencap Society about the importance of partnership working and sharing lessons learned. We are interested in principles of agile ways of working and starting to think about how much value internal and external ‘communities of practice’ and common networks can add to the impact we want to have. Would love to hear from anyone else who has experience of this.