Collaboration and competition in the food movement – making sense of both

The response of community food groups to the pandemic was impressive. People came together in new ways to grow and distribute food, to organize online, and to start new projects that will help us to ‘build back better’ when lockdown ends. Chester University’s Food in the Time of Lockdown gives a picture of this, and the Wales Audit Office has also been reviewing the community response. Through collaboration we create wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, and this is one of life’s joys.

But while we celebrate co-operation, we may be less willing to look at the darker side of the food movement. Turf wars, small projects being upstaged by bigger shinier ones, partnerships breaking down acrimoniously, empire-building, personality clashes – it’s all there. Of course, we should not overstate the problem. Most organizations bend over backwards not to offend the sensitivities of others and to look for positive solutions. Nevertheless the fallout can be so painful for the individuals concerned, and such a block to deeper change, that it is worth looking more closely at what is euphemistically known as ‘politics’.

Part of the problem is the split personality of NGOs. On the one hand they are supposed to be entirely altruistic, working for the good of all, while on the other, they are competing for limited funding, publicity, membership and political influence. The Common Cause Foundation has done great work in championing the altruistic values of community and equality that drive the community sector, but we need to remember that the ‘selfish’ needs for security, status and material support are just as much a part of being human.

When community organizations pretend that we are above such petty concerns – as our publicity campaigns require us to – what happens is that our undeniable requirement for support is driven underground. In psychological terms, it becomes part of the shadow of the food movement. It shows up as unhealthy power dynamics, ruthless competition and volunteer burnout. It would be better to take a more realistic view of the tension between serving the collective and maintaining our own well-being. Repeating the mantra ‘collaboration not competition’ doesn’t really do it.

Spaces for collaboration

How then might we design the voluntary sector so that it takes better account of these realities? One way might be to make a clear distinction between areas where we collaborate and compete. A good example comes from the food industry. This is seen as being entirely competitive, but the concept of pre-competitive space describes areas in which businesses can in fact usefully work together. For instance, they might come together to organize farm certification over a given region, or to share data on food production or the labour market through a trusted broker. Meanwhile, they continue to fight over market share in the usual way – the best of both worlds.

The food movement similarly needs to protect its pre-competitive or non-competitive space, where we take off our organizational hats and come together to face common challenges. This already happens often enough at conferences and meetings, when self-promotion and networking give way to a shared search for meaning. But we need to build on that, and create many more spaces where we place public good firmly above organizational interests. An ideal way to do that is to hold more meetings around meals, where the symbolism of sharing food reminds us of our interdependence. Even better, let’s get out of our offices and meet outdoors.

This needs to happen both nationally and locally. Local food partnerships for instance, by bringing organizations, volunteers and local authorities together, can create a space which supports collaboration, as Food Cardiff demonstrated in the first lockdown. That principle could be extended. Imagine if supermarket awards like Tesco’s Bags of Help were distributed to community projects not on the basis of a popularity contest, but following guidance from an elected local board that knew all the parties and could see where the greatest strategic gain was to be had. And what if we used shared meals, public procurement and so on to strengthen the public realm so that such a board had real power, and was trusted as an honest broker? The benefits would go far beyond food.

Managing competition

Meanwhile we need to look more closely at how resources are allocated in the voluntary sector, which is what fuels anxiety and competition. It is the great strength of the community food sector that people working on the ground can come up with new ideas and put them into action fast, running prototypes for wider society to adopt, as Olivier de Schutter argues. They need a funding structure that is similarly fast-moving and open to new entrants. Competitive bidding does have the virtue of selecting the better organized groups and the brightest ideas, delivering value for money.

In other areas however, maybe competition isn’t such a good idea. When a community project has proved its worth to the point that other projects as well as individuals have come to depend on it, it needs more than short-term funding. Such projects have the potential to bring about deep change in their communities, and that requires a longer commitment. Here stability is as important as innovation, and a competitive framework becomes an obstacle to building expertise and trust in community networks.*

A better system for allocating resources, understood and respected by all, would do a lot to lessen the competitive aspect, support collaboration and deliver better results.

Changing the culture

There are many other reasons why collaboration can be difficult, including the discomfort of working across sectors (food producers and caterers, to take one example, work under very different pressures). But there is nothing that could not be solved if there were a space for people to come together and work out what they need to do. The People’s Assemblies that sprang up during lockdown are a good example of what a respectful debate looks like. Meanwhile, the Summit to Sea project in mid Wales is practising co-design. These approaches need more support and testing.

Government has a key role. The Future Generations Act is famous for its Five Ways of Working, which include collaboration, and national government has backed that up with support for changing the culture of public services, at Academi Wales. They suggest using circles for meetings for instance, to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard, or gathering in inspiring places that bring out the best in people. There is even advice on what to do if meetings become too enjoyable. Academia also provides an important space for reflective practice that supports the food movement.  

Above all, we need systems that are built around human needs, however messy they may be. The unseemly struggles in the food movement have a parallel from music. The Welsh expression cythraul y canu, literally the devil of the singing, refers to the jealousies that so often lurk among the angelic harmonies. Who gets to sing the solo? Who has the sweetest voice? The stakes are high, and one person’s success is often another’s disappointment. But naming a difficulty takes out some of the sting, and in a choir, every voice counts. It’s time we made peace with cythraul y cydweithio, the devil of collaboration.

*See the Community Foundation Wales’ report ‘Loud and Clear‘ which calls for long-term core funding for community projects.

Have you been affected by the issues in this article? Come to a coaching circle and find peer support to explore challenges in your work.

© Jane Powell 2021. This article may be freely shared with acknowledgement.