By Barbara Dale-Jones and Melissa King, The Field Institute

After the onset of Covid-19, and once South Africa had gone into lockdown, IPASA members and affiliates who fund education projects and initiatives committed to a series of principles. These included a commitment to collaborative and coordinated action, to  maximising resources and limiting duplication, to communicating proactively and regularly, and to using a range of communication platforms so as not to exacerbate inequality. As part of this, these members and affiliates undertook to work together with other funder networks and affiliations.

During the Covid-19 Basic Education Workshops that IPASA convened in 2020, collaboration was consequently a focus. The workshops were designed to have two parts: there was a learning agenda where knowledge was shared; and there was a collaboration agenda, which allowed participant funders to explore opportunities for cooperation. Some collaborations were initiated or given impetus as a result of the workshops. For example, the Zenex Foundation heard about the Sikhaba iCOVID-19 initiative in this forum and that led to further engagement between Zenex and the DG Murray Trust and Innovation Edge, which led to Zenex providing support to the initiative. Another example is that The Learning Trust and The Maitri Trust collaborated for their mutual benefit with The Learning Trust supporting The Maitri Trust in their food relief efforts and The Maitri Trust in turn supporting the learning goals of The Learning Trust.

There is no doubt that collaboration can be a potent force for increasing reach and impact as well as reducing duplication and cutting costs. But those are not the only benefits. Because sectoral challenges are often very complicated, for funders to work alone to identify an issue, implement an effective solution and measure progress is very difficult. Instead, by working together, funders can build a shared understanding of a problem, mobilise resources that match the scale of the challenge they are trying to address and work together to test a range of possible solutions. Working with others also helps create more efficient feedback loops to facilitate collective learning about what works or does not work and thereby to inform action and adaptation, both during and after any intervention. This helps to ensure the sustainability of interventions.

Furthermore, because funders and social investors have more flexibility than government in piloting innovative practice, a collaborative approach can ensure that innovations that work do not remain isolated pockets of practice. Shared learnings and methodologies from successful projects enable a project to be adapted and extended as it is implemented in different contexts. This can create a snowball effect so that the intervention becomes scaled and systemic. The majority of funders work on projects in order to test ideas and introduce innovations into the system, with the intent of improving the quality of education. The overall responsibility to provide quality education is government’s mandate. It is not an easy or straight line from doing something and seeing that it works, and then getting government to replicate this and take it to scale. Government requires evidence of improved quality from interventions before any discussions can even begin. This is where funders can leverage collaboration to increase the power of their voice.

However, collaboration is notoriously difficult to get right. Gerry Salole, former European Foundation Centre Chief Executive, spoke about the challenges of effective funder collaboration at the recent IPASA symposium and made the point that collaboration means different things to different people. He gave many examples of types of collaboration among funders and, indeed, collaboration can take many different forms and degrees of intensity, and all of these are useful. Collaboration may simply mean the sharing of information and knowledge; or it may go further and entail agreement on a shared approach, or a collaborative project with joint funding. Collaborations range from loose to highly structured bodies. Different types of collaboration involve different levels of intensity. There are essentially three levels of funder collaboration: networking, cooperating and coordinating, and partnering.

Networking is mainly concerned with meeting and information-sharing. IPASA members and associates have been meeting at this level of collaboration in the Covid-19 Basic Education Workshops where information was shared about the impact of Covid-19 on education and government responses; and how different funders have responded to the crisis. Through the networking opportunity offered by these workshops, funders have gained a clearer understanding of how other funders work in education in a disrupted context. Several funders have described the value they received from the workshops. For example, the Maitri Trust has been able to access on the ground information, while the Zenex Foundation used the knowledge and information that was shared to inform its COVID strategy.

The next level of collaboration, cooperating and coordinating, is where funders begin to cooperate on concrete activities: for example, sharing specific resources, or doing shared facilitation with common target groups on a topic of concern. This stage involves planning, agreement on who does what in an activity, and carrying out specific activities. The abovementioned collaboration between The Maitri Trust and The Learning Trust is an example.

The last level, partnering, represents formal agreement on co-funding of a programme or intervention as a whole. It involves joint conceptualisation, structured leadership, decision-making and formal communication, and agreement on roles on responsibilities, either through MOUs or contractual agreements. This is longer-term and more difficult to achieve.

At the recent IPASA symposium, when asked what IPASA could do to address the deep systemic problems in the education system which have been exacerbated by Covid-19, 38% of respondents said that IPASA should bring funders together to connect, share and collaborate through issue-focused meetings. Gerry Salole echoed this when he expressed the hope that IPASA will carry the funder community forward through collaboration and coordinated effort. At whatever level it occurs, collaboration requires conscious and sustained effort. IPASA will continue to offer mechanisms and support to its members so that their combined efforts can contribute to quality education despite of the challenges we may still face.

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