Collaborators Corner: Matthew Smerdon


The Early Action Funders Alliance is a group of UK funders who share a vision of a society that prevents problems from occurring rather than one that just copes with the consequences.

The purpose of the Alliance is to create an active community of funders from across different sectors that use, or would like to use, early action approaches in their work, aiming for an annual increase in membership and in the funds committed to early action.

Collaborate recently interviewed Matthew Smerdon, Chief Executive of the Legal Education Foundation, about the role of the Alliance and how it collaboration works in practice.

Early Action Funders Alliance

Please tell us how the Alliance started.

The Alliance grew out of discussions with David Robinson and his work to establish the Early Action Taskforce. Since 2011, the Taskforce has brought together leaders across the sectors to make the case for a shift in spending towards prevention and supporting communities to be “ready for everything.” There were major questions for funders to address about what they could do to contribute to this agenda. In order to have these conversations, we saw the role for a space for reflection and discussion. From the initial conversations, we could see there were opportunities for collaboration and joint-working, and so came the Alliance.

Are you a collaborator by nature?

Absolutely. Collaboration has been very much a part of my professional life, from working in a local voluntary organisation to when I was Deputy Director at the Baring Foundation, which was very enthusiastic about collaborative working. Personally, I very much enjoy engaging and working with other funders. Collaboration has proved to be a very effective way of getting things done, its key ingredients being willingness and the ability to align ideas with resources.

Is collaborating easy?

I wouldn’t say that, but there are methods of facilitating it. At the Alliance, we started with no pre-defined agenda, which was crucial to taking things forward, creating the right sort of space where ideas can be circulated and developed together, and the Alliance has proved exactly that. A significant outcome has been the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund. Big Lottery Fund, Comic Relief and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation put in the funding and Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Legal Education Foundation provided additional support and guidance. We have since seen several million pounds of funding for three early action projects in different parts of the country.

What advice would you have for aspiring collaborators?

Seek spaces where you can have frequent and frank conversations with like-minded organisations. Be open to opportunities for collaboration and exchanges and tap into relevant networks. We have actively engaged in networks to create additional opportunities for ourselves and have built new relationships as a result.

Please tell me about the role of leadership in collaboration.

The Alliance’s leadership is very much shared and dispersed. I may be the Chair but this role could equally be filled by others. However, there does need to be a degree of formality in discussions, especially in regards to joint-working and governance arrangements (a priority when developing the Early Action Neighbourhood Fund). Clarifying roles was essential so that everything was clear to the members. Having support has also been key. A number of the Steering Group members jointly contribute to funding a Secretariat for the Alliance which is provided by Sarah Pugh of Global Dialogue. She organises all the practical arrangements (website, portal, meeting papers, event write-ups and logistics) for the Alliance, as well as identifying new opportunities for us, for which we are very grateful.

How do you manage time and capacity in joint-working?

Keep building the skills and networks that your partners can draw on. It is also very worthwhile to find out what is going on in other parts of the world. There has been a lot of learning for us from engaging with international organisations such as Unbound Philanthropy. We have gone on learning exchanges to see its work the United States, which proved incredibly beneficial.

How do you mobilise unlikely collaborators?

The Alliance can do this by opening doors to people – they can attend our quarterly meetings, follow our work and engage with us in whichever way they like. There shouldn’t be pressure put on people to engage in collaboration. Joint-working isn’t always right or suitable, but from creating open spaces you do find people wanting to learn more to add value to what they do. I firmly believe that showing what you have achieved in collaboration can be a successful way of bringing people not necessarily inclined to a new way of thinking about partnerships.

Are there any collaborative initiatives in the funding world that particularly interest you?

The Environmental Funders Network is a very effective model. They have quarterly meetings where people can engage in whatever way they would like and, underpinning this, have also developed a robust evidence base of how the environmental sector distributes its funding which has provided insights into gaps and informed strategic priorities.

How do you see the Alliance’s future?

We have created a methodology for how organisations might classify their funding in terms of early action, which we would be keen to see used more widely. The Alliance will continue to be a space where we hope funders will feel comfortable to engage in frank discussions about the needs around early action and to play a key role in bringing together public funders and foundations that would like to explore and develop thinking and partnership work in this area.

To learn more about the Early Action Funders Alliance, please click here.

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