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Unlikely allies: Collaborating beyond the comfort zone

Katie Boswell

It is often said that change moves at the speed of trust. When people trust each other, they can share information, take risks and act together in pursuit of a shared agenda.  

Yet this assumption of trust as a precondition for collaboration can limit our possibilities for influencing changeGravitating to people and groups we already trust can reinforce unconscious bias. The scale of the Covid-19 crisis means that collaboration out of our comfort zones, across traditional boundaries, is essential for the system-level response we need. This means working with unlikely allies and learning to work with people with whom we may not feel naturally comfortable. 

Connect the dots

By working with unlikely allies, we can accomplish more for the causes we care about. This is especially powerful for tackling systemic issues such as health inequalities or the climate emergency. For example: 

  • The Global Health Investment Fund (GHIF) brings together philanthropic funders like the Gates Foundation, financial institutions, development agencies, and biopharmaceutical companies to provide long-term funding for global health research and development. The $108 million social impact investment fund provides financing to address diseases that disproportionately burden low- and middle-income countries and are historically underfunded. 
  • The Climate Justice Alliance brings together labour unions, environmental groups and frontline communities in the United States to campaign for a ‘just transition’ to a green economy that upholds the rights of workers and communities. Before the historic People’s Climate March, green and social justice groups operated in siloes and tended not to work together. 

We can learn from these international examples to build trust across traditional siloes in the British charity sector. For example, we’ve called for more collaboration between environmental and social charities and funders to #BuildBackBetter from Covid-19.  

Examples like the Healthy Air Campaign coordinated by ClientEarth show us what can be achieved. The campaign brings together both socially and environmentally focussed charities to push for action on air pollution. Similarly, Welcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health programme is bringing together climate change and health professionals in advance of UN COP26 meeting in November 2021. Coalitions like this connect the dots between different issues and harness the expertise and networks of diverse groups to influence change. 

These examples can have a significant impact, but they still involve groups that have similar values and can coalesce around a shared vision. Collaborations involving people who hold different values to our own is more challenging—but it’s not impossible.  

Be comfortable with the uncomfortable

As Adam Kahane writes in Collaborating with the enemy, we can learn a lot from peacekeeping initiatives like those that ended the civil war in Colombia, or brought about a resolution in post-apartheid South Africa. For this type of collaboration to be successful, we need to shift away from focusing on collective goals and harmony, to embrace both conflict and connection. This way of working can be frightening; we must accept that we are not in control. 

Some charities and funders proactively seek relationships and alliances with those who do not share their worldview. Examples include: 

  • Migration Exchangea funder collaborativeestablished British Future as a thinktank to look at issues relating to identity and integration. They wanted to go beyond the sector’s usual base of people supportive of migration to find common ground with the ‘anxious middle’ of people who are anxious about cultural identification and economic opportunity. 
  • Finance Innovation Lab, a charity working to transform the financial system so that it serves people and planet, deliberately works with people across mainstream finance as well as with those working on purpose-driven finance. The Lab’s intrapreneurship community engages with banking professionals to help them influence changes within their institutions to align with social and environmental goals. 
  • Friends Provident Foundation and Royal London Asset Management are engaging with energy utility companies around the social impacts of the transition to a low carbon economy. Their work helped to influence SSE to publish a sector-first Just Transition strategy in November 2020. 

Working in this way takes time and practice and can be uncomfortable. Yet breaking out of our echo chambers, connecting the dots between issues, and finding common ground with others can lead to collaborations that make a real difference.

As we rebuild from Covid-19, charities and funders should look beyond those that they already trust to see what they could achieve by working with unlikely allies. Click To Tweet

What are your examples of working with unlikely allies? What lessons have you learned from doing so? Let us know what you think and if you would like to join future conversations about collaborating in this way by leaving a comment below.

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Mike Riddell

Hi Katie – this def resonates with the work we’re doing in Stoke & North Staffs where a movement around kindness is beginning to interest some unlikely allies, including those from the business community who are interested in what can best be described as cause-related-marketing. It’s still emerging but there’s definitely interest in cross-sector working if that work can either save money, attract money in the form of investment or make money in terms of new revenues.

And to your point about trust – there’s definitely an opportunity to (what I call) ‘unionise’ front-line community groups by providing them with a support service and network that helps them unlock the stored value of their membership. For change to happen quickly enough, we must recognise and value the importance of frontline community groups who support those most vulnerable. Those most vulnerable trust their community groups to do right by them. And so they should because these groups operate come hell or high water. They just need more support to unlock and monetise the true value they and their members are sat on.

In Stoke & North Staffs, we’re talking about a ‘Data Trust’ to provide such a service.

So you guys are definitely on the right track as far as we’re concerned!!!

Mike 🙂