Collaborate CIC is learning partner to the Cornerstone Fund, supporting funders and funded partnerships to reflect on their systems change practice, act on what they are learning, and share this learning to influence for wider change. In this blog post we share key reflections from a recent workshop in which funded partnerships and funders explored what they are learning from the pandemic about the role and value of civil society infrastructure.

The Cornerstone Fund (the Fund) was developed as a practical way to test more collaborative and systemic ways of delivering and funding support to enable a thriving civil society in London. The ten funded partnerships reflect a range of different types of civil society support (or ‘infrastructure’), from place-based generalist support, to specialist equalities networks, to thematic partnerships focusing on issues including effective use of data and sharing power.

You can read more about the Fund, Collaborate’s role as learning partner, and learning from year one here, and about the focus and current status of the ten Cornerstone Fund partnerships here.

In many ways the Fund had been testing ways of working that have since become a necessity in response to the COVID pandemic — working collaboratively, taking an emergent iterative approach, amplifying the voice and role of communities, funders joining forces and trusting the organisations they fund to do the right thing in their specific context. Those involved in the Fund therefore see the pandemic as an important opportunity to accelerate the change they want to see.

The agility and flexibility of the sector to deliver an immediate response is an achievement. We should capitalise on the status of the sector.

– Partnership lead organisation

Funders have really come together and it’s really hard to imagine ever going back to funding in siloes. If things go back, we will have failed. It’s a real opportunity to think about what systems change looks like.”
– Funder

At the same time, it’s clear that this opportunity is fragile. Workshop participants discussed the risk of new behaviours and ways of working ‘snapping back’, and the need to learn from both their Cornerstone Fund work so far and the crisis response to help shape the future.

“While the need for meaningful power sharing only grows, there is a risk that civil society reverts to the traditional, ‘easier’ ways of working and holding onto power.”
– Partnership lead organisation

Below we set out four key learning points that emerged during the session:

1. Recognising the role and value of civil society infrastructure
Prior to the pandemic, one of the lead organisations described their role as “to corral everyone into action, bringing people together, acting as the spider in the web”. This role has been reinforced in response to the pandemic, with civil society infrastructure acting as a source of collective intelligence for the sector, distributing essential information and resources, and connecting and convening people and local groups and supporting them to act.

The group reflected that overall the pandemic had led local public sector organisations to value and involve civil society organisations, and specifically infrastructure, more. However, the extent of progress varied. In some cases, the pandemic was thought to have been a ‘watershed’ for infrastructure in terms of how it has become valued by Local Authorities, and the opportunities for partnership in the future. Whereas, others have now got a ‘seat at the table’ but traditional power dynamics remain, with civil society not being treated as an equal partner. In both cases, the priority now is to capitalise on the progress that has been made over the past few months through the increased visibility of civil society, formation of new relationships and sharing of insight.

2. Taking a wider view of infrastructure
The pandemic has highlighted the need for and value of many types and layers of civil society support. The London Community Response Fund has received applications under its ‘infrastructure’ theme from organisations that would not traditionally be viewed or funded as infrastructure, such as residents organisations, mosques and Young People’s foundations.

In the future, we need to understand and value these various layers of civil society support and co-dependencies between them. This will require recognising and funding the valuable infrastructure function played by many different actors and networks, reflecting learning from the Cornerstone Fund more generally about the importance of funding activity beyond traditional ‘delivery’- roles such as convening, facilitating and connecting which are essential for enabling collaborative whole system efforts.

3. Bridging the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ response
In response to the pandemic, the ‘informal’ voluntary sector (e.g. neighbours creating support networks at a street-level and mutual aid groups) responded and stepped into a void where no structures existed, and in some cases these groups mobilised quicker than the ‘formal’ sector’s response. Workshop participants reflected on the important role played by civil society infrastructure in ‘bridging’ to help connect the insight and voice of local groups with large formal institutions such as local authorities and health partners. This role has included flagging blockers in the local pandemic response which have prevented people who need support from getting it, and working to develop collective solutions.

There is an important ongoing role for infrastructure in helping to sustain the contribution of these groups and volunteers longer term. In doing so, it is important to ensure a focus on sharing power, and helping informal groups navigate and influence traditional structures in a way that harnesses (rather than constrains) the energy and responsiveness that makes them effective.

4. Equalities infrastructure
The important role of civil society infrastructure in supporting small grassroots groups was highlighted, particularly those working with communities facing the greatest inequalities. There is a need for immediate capacity building support around issues such as digital literacy, and a significant role longer term to advocate for and support the survival of these groups as society faces deepening inequality in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Specialist equalities infrastructure has played an important role in informing the London Community Response Fund to help ensure funding effectively reaches equalities organisations. The existence of and prominent role of equalities infrastructure was felt by the group to some extent be unique to London, highlighting a need and opportunity to share learning and invest in equalities infrastructure elsewhere.

Shaping the future of infrastructure

Infrastructure is often an ‘invisible’ function but a crucial one in enabling collaborative and systemic change (as we have written about here). The value of civil society infrastructure has become more visible in the pandemic response, and those involved in the Fund stressed the need to learn from the past — “[The Fund] came about because LAs stopped investing in infrastructure. We need to make sure the message is clear — don’t cut infrastructure”.

As a group, the funders and funded partnerships involved in the Fund are uniquely positioned to collectively act on and influence based on learning from the pandemic and the Cornerstone Fund more widely. Key priorities include:

Making the case

  • Tell the story of and demonstrate the value of infrastructure in the pandemic response.
  • Use data from the London Community Response Fund to show that places and communities with strong infrastructure leads to better applications and better outcomes.
  • Highlight the importance of proactively maintaining the legacy of the new wave of volunteers, and the role infrastructure can play in this.

Improving the effectiveness of infrastructure

  • Re-evaluate and broaden understanding and definitions of ‘infrastructure.’ We need to look at this in a more layered way and understand the various layers and co-dependencies.
  • In a complex and ever-changing context, infrastructure needs to be agile and flexible. Flexible core funding will enable infrastructure to respond to what’s needed quicker and more sustainably.
  • Explore together how infrastructure can effectively support civil society organisations, particularly hyperlocal groups — how does support need to look different to what’s gone before, how can funding get to where it is most needed?
  • Make equalities issues central — invest in organisations who can advocate, convene and support.

In our next phase of work with Cornerstone Fund partners in the autumn, we will further explore learning and progress relating to the themes explored in this blog, and will publish a final learning report in early 2021.

Please get in touch with Dawn Plimmer if you’d like to find out more about the Collaborate’s role as learning partner to the Cornerstone Fund.