12 April 2023

Catalysing collaborations: learning from the Funders Collaborative Hub

The Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) is the leading membership association for foundations and independent grant-makers in the UK. Our purpose is to strengthen trusts and foundations so they can rise to the challenges of our times.

We recently launched a new five-year strategy, which focuses on our role as a membership association and how we can effect positive change with and for our members.

One of the ambitions we set out in our strategy is to ‘catalyse collaborations between foundations and with others to achieve greater impact’. So it is timely for us to join discussions with our international peers in the PEX Community about the potential for philanthropy infrastructure to play a catalyst role.

‘An agent that facilitates a change’

My memory of school chemistry lessons being rather faded, I won’t get too stuck on the scientific meaning of ‘catalyst’. However, my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary helpfully also offers this simple, figurative definition: ‘an agent that facilitates a change’.

Taking that as a starting point, it’s possible to identify several examples of catalytic practices in ACF’s current and previous work:

  • Our Stronger Foundations ‘pillars’ help grant-making foundations to identify and pursue ambitious and effective practice
  • More than 100 funders have signed our UK Funder Commitment on Climate Change – the first of its kind, which has inspired similar commitments around the world
  • By providing spaces for foundations to explore shared interests, our member networks have led to the development of both formal and informal collaborations. 

Since reading Alina Porumb and Alexandra Stef’s recent blog on how philanthropy support organisations can catalyse transformation, and attending the first meeting of the PEX ‘Catalyst Infrastructure’ group, I’ve been thinking a lot about catalytic practices in relation to the specific area of ACF’s work that I lead: the Funders Collaborative Hub.

The Hub was originally piloted as a response to Covid-19, but was relaunched in 2021 to help funders achieve more together for the long-term. There are three main ways that I see the Hub as having potential to play a ‘catalytic infrastructure’ role.

1. Making the ecosystem more visible

Alina and Alexandra’s blog talks about the importance of ‘tending to the ecosystem’. To tend to something, it helps if you can see it!

For a long time, lots of funder collaboration in the UK was happening below the radar – invisible to those who weren’t directly involved.

This isn’t because anyone was trying to be secretive. In fact, individually, UK funders are sharing more information about themselves and their grants than ever before, helped by initiatives like 360Giving. But at a collective level, the infrastructure simply wasn’t there for funders to share open information about their many and varied collaborations.

The Hub is changing that. Our website now brings together information on more than 100 existing funder collaborations, making these easily searchable by issue or location.

Returning to my dictionary’s definition of a ‘catalyst’, does this shared information actually ‘facilitate change’?

It certainly has the potential to do so. By analysing the Hub’s unique dataset on what funders are collaborating on and where, we can help them to spot gaps and opportunities, avoid duplication and join up complementary activities for greater impact.

2. Multiplying the possibilities for connection

I am struck by Alina’s idea that ‘catalysts operate from a frame of possibility and potential, allowing space for alignment to emerge, rather than from a frame of linearity, control and coordination’.

The Funders Collaborative Hub doesn’t seek to actively co-ordinate funders’ activities. Nor do we suggest that there is any ‘ideal’ form for a collaboration to take. It is funders themselves (and the partners they work with in their own particular fields) who have the expertise and capacity to design and lead collaborations that will serve different purposes at different times.

We can play a more catalytic role by encouraging and enabling funders to share their ideas and intentions at an earlier stage. By publishing an ‘emerging opportunity’ openly on the Hub, funders can quickly identify themselves to others who are interested in pursuing similar aims or exploring questions and challenges together – including those who may not have been in their existing networks.

3. Identifying and championing excellent practice

Through the Hub’s regular contact with leaders of these existing and emerging collaborations, we are well-placed to notice the wide-ranging collaborative methods and structures that funders use to advance their goals together.

Part of our role as ‘catalyst infrastructure’ is to identify examples of practice that others can take learning and inspiration from. We are building a collection of case studies sharing learning from effective funder collaborations and a toolkit that translates this learning into practical guides and resources.

We’re also clear that to understand the impact of funders’ practices, it’s essential to hear the voices of other civil society organisations and the communities they serve and represent. We’re currently gathering diverse experiences and viewpoints on funder collaboration, and hope that by sharing these perspectives back to funders we can help them to continue improving their practices.

Putting our strategy into action

How the role of the Funders Collaborative Hub evolves is just one part of a bigger set of questions that ACF will need to answer as we put our new strategy into action over the next five years.

Other related questions include:

  • How might we cultivate vibrant communities of practice and build brave spaces to share knowledge and ideas?
  • Where can ACF and our partners add value, amplify innovation and incubate initiatives to have maximum impact?
  • How else can we expose ourselves and our members to different ideas, voices and approaches?

We look forward to sharing our progress and challenges as we go – and hope to find lots of inspiration in learning from the catalytic work of other philanthropy support organisations.

This is a series of reflections of PEXcommunity on how philanthropy infrastructure organisations could be catalysts of change. If you would like to contribute to this exploration, join PEX Catalyst Infrastructure.


Jim Cooke
Head of the Funders Collaborative Hub, Association of Charitable Foundations