Sharing learning: How funders can support impactful research collaborations

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Sharing learning: How funders can support impactful research collaborations

© Fun Palaces – Creative Cafe @ The Bureau Centre for the Arts, Blackburn 2022. Photo: Scott David Jackson

This resource makes recommendations for funders and universities who want to support cross-sector research partnerships. The learning is drawn from the Centre for Cultural Value’s exploratory research funding programme Collaborate. 

Research collaborations that combine the knowledge and expertise of cultural practitioners and academics can produce valuable learning to inform and improve policy and practice. 

Yet, for these partnerships to fulfill their potential, it is important that they are equitable, ethical, relevant and applicable.

By sharing our learning from Collaborate, we hope funders can design even more impactful cross-sector research programmes that will benefit academics, cultural organisations and practitioners, and the people and communities they serve.

What’s the story?

Why we developed the Collaborate fund

Between 2021 and 2024, the Centre for Cultural Value ran an open-call funding programme called Collaborate to support research partnerships between the cultural sector and academics. A core aim was to better understand how to support collaborative research processes. 

We wanted Collaborate projects to explore questions that have immediate relevance to cultural sector practice, to shine a light on perspectives that are currently underrepresented in research, and to take a creative approach to methodology. 

What challenges did we want Collaborate to address?

Cultural sector professionals have a real desire to develop research skills and explore questions that help them better understand their work, their audiences and communities. Yet, through a series consultation events, we identified some key barriers to effective collaborations:

1. Cultural sector partners were often on an unequal footing with academics in research collaborations. This power imbalance frequently stemmed from financial control resting with the higher education institution or the skills and expertise of cultural practitioners not being acknowledged or valued.

2. Cultural sector partners felt that they had very little agency in developing research methodologies. At the same time, they did not want to open up their audiences and communities to research practices that could be perceived as extractive.

3. Some cultural sector professionals identified gaps in their own knowledge about the research process and the skills and expertise researchers could bring. This was coupled with a lack of access to academic networks.

4. Likewise, some academics felt unsure of how to initiate and develop effective and ethical partnerships with the cultural sector

5. Research projects are often highly focused on outputs. This means that learning and insights from the collaboration itself are potentially missed. There is also little space to pivot should initial explorations suggest a more beneficial focus.

Collaborate was designed to address these challenges and to foster more equitable, impactful and collaborative research practices. It filled a clear gap in the funding landscape and offered cultural practitioners an opportunity to embark on a research journey shaped by their needs. 

Recommendations for supporting collaborative research

Through four years of developing and running the Collaborate programme, we have drawn out the following headline learning:

1. Reflect on what it looks like in practice to bring people around the table as equals and build this into your support. Consider who initiates the research focus and how funding, intellectual property and data can be shared to benefit all partners.

2. Remove barriers and support the readiness of smaller cultural organisations and individual practitioners to participate in research partnerships with academics. The demand is there. This work should include creating light-touch, supportive application processes.

3. Consider how you can best support partnerships with brokering and mentoring. Collaborate projects benefitted from a matchmaking process that helped identify partners with shared interests and goals.

4. Adopt a greater acceptance of risk and give partners permission to experiment and fail. Learning from what doesn’t work generates invaluable insights and encourages reflective learning.

5. Value all the ways learning can happen and recognise that it often emerges within collaboration processes, not just in the final research outputs. Create space for reflection and embrace the possibilities of emergent enquiry rather than being prescriptive about outcomes.

6. Think about how to build empathy and care into the programme’s design. For example, once the Collaborate projects were underway, we provided an independent facilitator to run milestone meetings, with an emphasis on reflecting on the quality of the collaborative process rather than progress monitoring. This approach allowed partners to acknowledge and explore the challenges of investing in engaged research and how they could develop and sustain their partnership beyond the project delivery.

7. Support methodological innovation. By creating space for open discussion of research approaches, there’s greater potential for new and creative methodologies to emerge. Some of the most innovative research surfaced from unexpected pairings of cultural and academic partners, across disciplines, which unlocked deeper research insights.


Keen to learn more? Read on to gain detailed insights about the processes involved in supporting impactful research collaborations.

What did we learn as a funder?

Our learning from the programme fits into the following themes:

1. Understanding the research motivations and needs of the cultural sector

Our Collaborate programme demonstrated there is a thirst for research in the cultural sector. Practitioners want to be involved in research and investigate timely questions across a range of disciplines. Applications showed a real urgency for research, as the sector struggles with shrinking capacity and resources and questions of sustainability.

Compass Live Arts: 1000 Handshakes by Sarah Caputo and Brenda Unwin (Photo by Lizzie Coombes)

Research insights equip cultural professionals to be clear-sighted about what works well and what needs to change to make the best use of their resources. When asked why they wanted to develop these research projects, cultural sector applicants anticipated clear benefits including:

  • informing the development of new business models and new modes of programme delivery;
  • piloting more effective and sustainable modes of working;
  • generating a better understanding of how to respond to the changing needs of their communities and audiences;
  • creating transferrable learning to improve sector-wide understanding and practices.

Across the two rounds of Collaborate, 479 expressions of interest were received from cultural sector applicants, many from micro-organisations and individual practitioners. Most had no or minimal experience working with academic researchers or using research to inform their practice. 

This reach and demand across the cultural sector demonstrate that research funders and higher education institutions should consider who could be better supported to be involved in research.

“In doing this research and in reading the responses and expertise of our audiences, we felt a landscape opening up in understanding the affective value of culture.” - Cultural partner

2.Identifying the essential elements of equitable research collaborations 

One of Collaborate's aims was to investigate the critical success factors of collaborative practice itself. By running the programme, we’ve learnt what contributes to a flourishing research partnership. This how-to guide explores this in more detail.

We built space for each research partnership to share reflections throughout their collaborations. This was through a series of facilitated milestone meetings which helped us capture examples of best practice and learn from approaches that didn’t work. 

So what defined the most successful of these equitable research collaborations?


Running through the collaborations is a thread of compassion, care and consideration. This is built into the programme by design. In practice, it involves the research partners investing time and attention in exploring each other’s worlds, taking soundings, seeking to understand each other’s mindsets, expertise, goals and processes.

Respecting boundaries

All partners need to be open and honest about their own experiences, expectations and needs. This results in greater recognition and respect for what each partner can and cannot commit to, and can be built into project planning from the start.

Acknowledging and addressing imbalances 

It’s important that partners recognise any imbalances relating to power, status, experience, capacity or resources and jointly decide how to address them. Time can be defined and respected differently across and between sectors and is one of the most common points of frustration.

Language and communication

One of the Collaborate participants described cultural practitioners and academics as collaborators divided by a common language. It’s not just about decoding acronyms and buzzwords but also finding out how words are understood differently in different contexts. Honest and frequent communication helps overcome this as can developing a shared glossary of terms.

Embracing emergent enquiry

A research collaboration brings different perspectives to the table and is an opportunity to play with emerging possibilities rather than pinning things down too quickly or clinging to preconceived ideas. Bring new ways of working into play by being open to learning and acknowledging difference and ambiguity.

For academic partners involved in Collaborate, this focus on collaborative practice offered a new and particularly valuable way of working.

“We can build this space for incredible, vulnerable relationships and it was really inspiring… in academia, it's very different for all kinds of reasons…I work in a massive institution that is messy and complicated, and I have very little power within that institution, but now I can take some of this process into my personal practice" Academic partner

“We didn't follow the pigeonholes that each of us is in and we didn't say, ok, so you just do things which are within your remit just keep doing that,  because I think we'd have really damaged it...I think it just would have been such a different project if we hadn't taken that approach, to allow each of us to be fully engaged and fully involved." - Academic partner

3. Benefits of supporting collaborative research 

Research collaborations offer clear benefits to both academic and cultural sector partners. But we also identified some wider benefits that extended beyond the project partners.

Strengthening research skills and networks

An important benefit of Collaborate was its ability to catalyse new research skills and questions for academics. Collaborate projects were all driven by research questions that had immediate relevance and impact to the cultural sector partner. The partnerships also opened up different networks that academics previously didn’t have access to.

Collaborations between practitioners and academics can also help meet the broader research aims of higher education institutions. Universities are encouraged to develop an open research culture and co-productive forms of research which lead to societal impact, especially where these can be used as future REF (Research Excellence Framework) case studies. Collaborate opened up vital conversations within higher education institutions about how research is conducted, for and with whom. 

“We’re generating some interesting research questions which just wouldn’t surface if you were isolated from real-life practice.” - Academic partner

Methodological innovation

The partnerships’ reflective practices, including time and space to develop the collaboration, proved to be fertile ground for methodological innovation. A strong connection between the research question and the cultural organisations’ live practice led to a range of experimental and creative methodologies.

For example, Compass Live Art partnered with researchers at the Institute for Social Justice, York St John University, to explore the impact of co-creation with artists. Together, they created participatory and creative methodologies that mirror Compass’s creative practices. This included the development of a 'walking interview', which generated deep place-specific data and ensured the lived experiences of artists and participants were integral to the project. 

Crafts Council and Glasgow Caledonian University (London) Living Lab with Legacy West Midlands. Photo: Gene Kavanagh

The collaboration between Quarantine and physicist Rox Middleton explored methodologies to help better understand and articulate the value of beauty. The team designed and sent out bespoke paper ‘lab books’ to individual audience members after a performance of 12 Last Songs and asked them to hand write and draw their reflections on memories of the performance. 

The lab books were inspired by how Rox captures and documents her scientific processes. Though the method generated a smaller data sample than a digital survey, the information was far richer and the team now has a better insight into what stays with audience members once a performance is over. 

One of the key strengths of creative qualitative methods is their ability to unearth data that is deeper, richer, and more people and place-centred. By centring the lived experiences and voices of participants, these methods brought a more empathetic and human-centred approach to research. This meant that researchers could tap into deeper layers of meaning and emotion, accessing perspectives that enrich our understanding of the impact of culture. 

“It’s really exciting to work with people who have that creativity and that enthusiasm for what they do. Working with partners outside of academia makes the work you do more exciting, more relevant and more stimulating.” - Academic partner

Ripples of impact

There’s evidence that the new questions and connections that emerged from the Collaborate projects led to impacts that were wider than the research itself and beyond the project partnership. 

For example, as part of their methodology, Rising Arts Agency and academic partner Andreana Drencheva at King's College London, made their research conversations public, producing a series of podcasts with research participants. ‘Power in Partnerships' simultaneously adds to the research data and engages the wider sector in responding to their research topic. 

There are also a wide range of examples of creative commissions and career development opportunities granted through the programme. This is a reflection from a young maker employed to work on the Craft Council project. 

"Working in a professional setting where collaboration is valued over competition helped me build heaps of confidence and faith in myself. Being able to connect and expand my contacts with other organisations opened up new doors for me. I am currently working on another independent project through those contacts.” - Young Craft Citizen at the Craft Council

4. Other learnings

Scalability and risk

The Collaborate model was successful in supporting the development of equitable research collaborations. However, this model also has risks inherent in its processes. The Centre had to assume an active role as partnership broker, project coordinator, facilitator, mediator and critical friend as well as funder. It’s a slower practice and bespoke. It is heavy on administrative capacity, with costs in time, commitment and money.

The demand in the cultural sector for this type of programme meant that the Centre could  only support 3% of cultural sector applicants. If the fund had been twice the size, we would have needed significantly more capacity to support a greater number of projects. This raises questions about the scalability of this particular model.

Sustaining a light-touch model

Addressing identified barriers to traditional co-productive research practice, the Collaborate programme lightened the load on awardees by removing traditional reporting restrictions and allowing partners to develop delivery plans iteratively. 

Close up of two people sat a table. One person holds a pen and is writing on a sheet of paper.

This approach has fostered more creative freedom to develop audience-centred outputs and methodological innovation. It has also opened up new avenues for collaboration and innovation in the research process. However, these changes have led to some disconnect, between the processes of the Collaborate programme and the inflexibility of IP, data sharing, contracting and payment processes of our own University and the partner universities involved in the projects. 

Standard university research processes are not designed to support collaborations of this type, which has resulted in frustrations and some delays in programme delivery. 

Overview of processes

In response to our cultural sector consultation, we designed the Collaborate application process to be light-touch and people-centred. 

To support a diverse range of applicants, we provided application workshops (which were available to rewatch via our YouTube channel). We also made bursaries available to support applicants with additional needs or to cover the time and costs of jointly developing the project.

The application process included the following stages:

We also produced detailed application guidance, including in easy-read formats. Explore these guides for more insights into the process of applying to the fund:

It was valuable to consider the diversity, expertise and training of assessment panels to ensure a fair and transparent selection process.

Successful applicants were awarded up to £20k for a 12-month research project, to explore a research question highly relevant to their practice. 

Once the projects were underway, partners were provided with bespoke facilitation and mentoring that supported their reflective learning and collaborative research practice. 

Further reading

Published: 2024
Resource type: Case studies