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The role of the broker

29.11.23 By Jill Cornforth

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The role of the "broker" supporting community/researcher collaboration has been critical to the success of The Ideas Fund so far. Here, we share some of our reflections on the role they have played.

At its heart, The Ideas Fund aims to support more equitable relationships between communities and researchers and support healthy systems for future collaboration. Since the launch of the Fund in 2021, we have been supported by local “Development Coordinators” in each of the four areas where we work, and these “brokers” have been critical to the work we’ve done.

We recently ran an online learning conversation to reflect on this “broker” role. We heard from Lewis Hou of Science Ceilidh who has been working in this way for some time, including in partnership with us on The Ideas Fund as our Development Coordinator for the Highlands and Islands. We also heard from Will Hunter, who has experience of supporting community/researcher collaboration and has recently started to consider some of these experiences as a PhD candidate. You can see the slides from this learning conversation here, and the padlet with contributions from participants here.

We also reflected on our own learning, to consider the different roles our “brokers” have fulfilled in the Fund over the last two years. Our Development Coordinators have provided key one-to-one support to applicants, grantholders and their projects, helping them navigate challenges at every point. They’ve also acted as a critical friend at each decision or planning point, supporting us to reflect on what’s gone well and helping to shape each next phase of the Fund. The local insight they’ve brought has been critical as a place-based Fund to make sure we were conscious of the local context, including sensitivities, complexities and other anchor organisations.

“...the support and contact with [Development Coordinators] has been lovely and so supportive. What a wonderful bunch of people you have"
- Grantholder, Hull

There have been a variety of ways they have supported applicants throughout the journey, and continue to support projects once they have been funded. These are described below.

  • Connecting with grassroots organisations - By knowing their place really well, and having links to existing networks, they were able to help us reach some of the people and groups who had historically been furthest away from these kinds of community/researcher collaborations. They brought a level of pre-existing trust with these groups, through longstanding relationships or through authentic connection to each location that we wouldn’t have been able to build quickly as a national team.
  • Developing ideas and applications - Some of the more grassroots organisations we support had never applied for any grant funding before, so this was an entirely new experience for them. Development Coordinators provided support with budgets, project plans and putting their ideas on paper. Others needed some support to develop their ideas around the potential opportunity to work with a researcher for the first time. The Development Coordinators played a key role in helping them to explore what might be possible.
  • Connecting with researchers and the wider University - reaching into Universities, brokering individual conversations and also supporting researchers and groups with rejection was essential. Once the partnerships were formed, their role continued in helping partners navigate issues and negotiate their projects. Here, a knowledge of the landscape and connections within institutions helped strengthen the community/researcher partnerships.
  • Capacity building - Brokers bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise from their various professional fields. As partnerships get underway, projects have been able to draw on this in a lot of different ways to strengthen their practice. Development Coordinators have helped connect projects to funding from other sources, develop core policies and procedures and connect to specialist support in other places through their networks.
  • Mediating and problem solving - Not all projects or partnerships always go well or have an easy path to tread. Nor do people always want to share some of their issues directly with their funder, no matter how supportive or open you are. Development Coordinators offer another route to sharing problems by providing coaching and support to help navigate disagreements, misunderstandings or difficult conversations.
  • “Translating” - We’ve had a lot of conversations about the different professional languages between the two worlds. The academic and community sectors have a range of references and frameworks that practitioners draw on to explain their thinking. It’s common for confusion and misunderstandings to arise and the role of the “broker” as translator cannot be underestimated.
  • Connecting funded projects - Brokering connections within The Ideas Fund has meant building relationships with partnerships and between them. They facilitate communities of practice within each area for all the funded projects, helping encourage peer support, collaborative problem solving and also shared learning. This has helped to build a strong community amongst the projects, leading to further collaboration and connection in each place. We’ve also seen connections between places develop where projects have similar approaches or themes, and this is something we want to spend more time building on over the next couple of years.

If you’re interested in carrying on the conversation about the role of the “broker” in community/researcher collaboration, we’d love to hear from you! You can contact us at