Radical collaboration: how we go further, together

Making progress on urgent and complex social issues requires radical collaboration. It means dissolving the barriers between competitors, sectors, service providers and clients. Between leaders, employees, communities and end users.

It requires a much more creative, inclusive and flexible form of leadership. Leadership that provides a platform for the most unlikely partnerships to be nurtured and grown, and for the voices of those usually excluded from decision making to be heard. Everyone must play a role. 

Sharing voices and working together

We know from working with clients on their corporate giving strategies how difficult this can be, and wanted to create a space where cross-sector ideas could be shared. We had previously partnered with Forster Communications on the Bold Thinking, Brave Action reports and wanted to evolve this thinking into something tangible.

So, we designed this workshop for our corporate giving and charity clients, to discuss and experiment with the concept of radical collaboration. We looked into how we can put it into practice to help tackle pressing societal issues such as the climate emergency, the cost-of-living crisis, and protecting the rights of marginalised groups.

What is radical collaboration?

Peter Gilheany, Charity Director of Forster Communications, defined radical collaboration as being a partnership initiative that causes a reaction or provokes a response – whether it be shock, awe or intrigue. A ‘hmm’ or an ‘oh!’ moment. That response from people signals that something unusual is happening.

And there is a strong desire for the unusual, for a shift away from pre-pandemic business as usual to effect real societal change. With the charity sector facing an existential funding crisis, and progressive businesses confronting how they meet their long-term social or environmental commitments, unusual partnerships and collaborative initiatives offer a bold way forward.

How does radical collaboration work in practice?

We heard from Trewin Restorick, Founder of sustainability start-up Sizzle and environmental charity Hubbub, a recipient of social investment from CAF Venturesome. He shared learnings from his experience bringing together dozens of partners, including direct competitors, to tackle issues ranging from ocean plastics and recycling to food waste and fly tipping.

Trewin’s experience showed that radical collaborations can deliver rapid, large scale change, including via government policy, which is often the bedrock for many issues that need addressing. 

“The beauty of collaboration is that governments really start to shake when those they expect to be on their side start saying things they don’t like to hear,” said Trewin.

“I'm currently working on a campaign to introduce a long-awaited peat ban by the Government, which is crucial from a carbon perspective but keeps being pushed back. We've partnered with a lot of businesses who are calling for a ban because it’s good for business, for the economy and for the environment. That’s what’s getting the traction – that businesses are on board alongside environmentalists.”

From a practical perspective, Trewin shared five essential aspects to a successful collaboration:

  • Clarity: creating a partnership of unusual suspects is time-consuming and risky. It is only worth doing if there is absolute clarity and agreement on what you’re seeking to solve. This issue should be of long-term importance to all parties and be too big to be solved by one organisation alone.
  • Bravery: radical collaboration can be uncomfortable as it often requires working closely with your competitors, which runs counter to the usual order. By listening to the people directly impacted by the issue you’re seeking to address, you can help identify the root causes and radical new solutions to the issue.
  • Built on values: bringing together organisations with different cultures, backgrounds and language can be difficult. This is why finding a common set of core values is so important to underpin the partnership and create a shared experience.
  • Humility: one of the biggest challenges can be navigating power dynamics and shifting the mindset from a client-contractor relationship to a true partnership. Those funding the project must be genuinely open and collaborative, while those being funded must be confident in voicing their opinions.
  • Courage: to be truly radical requires stepping out of your comfort zone. The project should seek to move at the pace of the most courageous within the partnership to really maximise your opportunities. Be bold with your ambitions, scale or even your branding.
Read more on these five aspects and examples in Trewin’s article on why radical collaboration is important and difficult.

What might radical collaboration look like?

To put the learnings into practice, we facilitated groups to create and test radical and collaborative initiatives. Each group was tasked with designing a company’s response to a global issue, building it out and testing it against an unexpected event such as a natural disaster or social movement.

One group, focussing on the climate emergency, proposed creating a coalition of major toy manufacturers putting purpose over profit by only selling to customers returning toys for recycling. They would use AI to scan for incomplete sets, have staff advising on repurposing, and create local swap-shops by collaborating with schools and community groups.

In tackling the cost-of-living crisis, another suggested supporting a retailer’s staff childcare costs by creating a shared childcare space in a shopping centre with subsidised rates and surplus clothing and food from fellow retailer partners.

While another group looking into the rights of marginalised people came up with a bank account for those without identification documents that could provide access to welfare benefits and financial education, supporting their financial resilience using state support through a private business.

Creating radical change together

The exercise was an opportunity to step out of the day-to-day and encourage bold, creative thinking around collaboration and impact. Both CAF and Forster Communications are committed to helping our clients ensure that impact is at the heart of their initiatives, and to challenging and championing radical change.

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