Share: How Covid has helped create a new focus on collaboration
This is the second of a series of essays looking at aspects of PHF’s strategy through the work we support. In this essay Naima Khan talks with leaders across civil society about whether collaborative action is the answer to getting through the pandemic and stepping confidently into the future.
“Nothing about us without us” rings as true today as it did when it was popularised by disabled activists in the ‘80s. It speaks to the need for both collaboration between communities as well as the centring of disabled people’s voices in work that impacts them. Disability Advocate Rachel Garaghty calls it an “incantation of self-determination.”
I’m thinking about this political slogan today after a conversation with Ben Cairns, Director of Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) about the rapidly formed collaborations we’ve seen since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ben has observed that collaboration can be a shared method that comes from dissimilar places. “There is a distinction”, he says “between those for whom collaboration is a value; and those for whom collaboration is a strategy.” For the value folks, they acknowledge, “we can only ever know a bit about the problem we seek to address so we always want to work with others.” For those who see collaboration as a strategy “they feel they are more likely to achieve a pre-determined goal if they work with someone else.”
One’s take on collaboration reveals how an actor sees themselves within their wider understanding of what needs to change and how change happens.
At the start of the pandemic, we saw a proliferation of mutual aid groups forming at a grassroots level. Mutual aid is a direct action method of support that has long been used by marginalised people. Especially Black, LGBT+, disabled and migrant communities and those who exist in the intersections of these. “Our mutual aid goes beyond theory… into direct action, support and sustainability” writes Eshe Kiama Zuri, the founder of UK Mutual Aid, which was formed well before the pandemic in 2018. Their collaborative work is done with “a revolutionary focus as a means of protest and survival.”
The philanthropic sector sensibly mobilised towards collaborative emergency funds. This has largely been with a “focus on what the immediate needs are and how we best work together to meet them quickly and responsibly,” says Vijay Jassal, Assistant Director – Policy & Strategic Partnerships at National Emergencies Trust (NET).
In March 2020 Paul Hamlyn Foundation joined others with contributions to NET which was set up in 2017 after the Manchester Arena bombings and the Grenfell Tower fire. Their purpose is to co-ordinate funds when the momentum to give swells on a national scale. Their focus during the pandemic continues to be on partnering with local foundations and national funders to reach people. However, they now have the added challenge of ensuring their collaborative work reaches people in need all over the UK.
Coronavirus itself has been a catalyst for collaboration and it also gave unprecedented weight and urgency to already existing arguments that are easily relegated to the back burner by the philanthropy sector. Vijay cites “the galvanising effect of Black Lives Matter and Charity So White on our understanding of how people of colour in particular experience Coronavirus. These movements have had an impact on our thinking, on who we need to be working with and how we work together.”
Similarly, disability rights activists have shaped our collective understanding of what inclusive collaboration looks like before and during the pandemic. In their statement on Coronavirus and disabled people’s rights, Disability Rights UK called for collaboration with social justice at its centre:
“We have the right to be fully involved in decisions about our own lives, including life and death decisions. Decisions should never be made without our involvement, or consideration of our best interests. There is no justification for policies based on age or learning disability that do not treat each of us with respect and as individuals.”
Disability and racial justice activists have always implored collaborators to understand how the communities they want to work with experience the world. In their efforts to do this, NET have disseminated funds through two collaborative bodies: the disability support network DPO COVID-19 Coalition (led by Disability Action NI) and LGBT+ Futures led by LGBT+ Consortium. Both have existing relationships with communities whose experience of the pandemic are often ignored. By working with them, NET are more informed of the challenges they face and the resources they can access.
Truly understanding the environment of your collaborators and the communities you seek to support together, should impact how each collaborator operates. Knowledge of the whole ecosystem is essential to effective collaborative working and a primary reason for collaborative working in the first place.
In her work, Ruth Pryce, Head of Programme – Young People at PHF, is actively pursuing an aspiration to see “the behaviour and values around collaboration become the default. So that an organisation doesn’t think ‘we are the only ones that can do this, we do this the best, we should influence others, we should share our practice’ but rather they think, who else can we work alongside in order to support young people? Who else has identified the gaps that we have, and can we work together to fill that gap?”
There are initiatives that can compel this behaviour from funders keen to lead by example. As part of his role at PHF, Alex Sutton, Head of Programme – Migration, explored strategic responses to the spike in immigration advice needs. From that exploration came Justice Together, a new collaboration by independent funders that aims to transform access to justice in the UK immigration system with a bold ten-year vision.
“Justice Together was never just about the grants,” Alex explains, “it was about incentivising sector organisations to work together and then to bring funders in to work with sector organisations.” Work on Justice Together started long before Covid-19 reached us and there have been previous catalysts that have spurred the immigration sector into collaborative working, the Windrush scandal being one. The Black Lives Matter movement, especially the protests in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, has also had an impact on our understanding of the connections between racial justice, policing, and immigration.
“The inequalities that were laid bare through Covid wouldn’t have had as much examination and thought,” says Alex, “if the response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor hadn’t happened so soon after [the start of the pandemic]. Suddenly all these injustices, that were always there, were being connected.”
In Alex’s experience “many organisations have always thought about how they’re working but when they come to funders, they’re asked about the what. What are you doing and what impact does it have? Now,” he says referencing both BLM and Coronavirus as catalysts for collaboration, “I think there’s a willingness from funders to see that how the work is being carried out is as important as the impact it’s having.”
Coronavirus has enabled funders and organisations to come together effectively because it requires us to detach ourselves from usual ways of working. Perhaps it also changed the way we see our positionality in wider system of interconnected oppressions and opportunities for change. Its timing alongside the long-term work of disability and racial justice advocates means that while Coronavirus has not been the only catalyst for change, it has made siloed working and stagnation inexcusable.
 Disabled People’s Organisations