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Successful international collaboration: ten tips!

Door: Inez Boogaarts / 29 november 2021
C: Lorenzo Marconi
C: Lorenzo Marconi

Have you always wanted to work with a German partner on a joint project? The Cultural Participation Fund and the German Soziokultur will continue to collaborate in 2022, offering grants to support collaborative projects involving Dutch and German partners.

With this programme, the two funds aim to stimulate collaboration and exchange between Dutch and German cultural organisations who create unusual projects for, by and with the participants. But how does cross-border collaboration work? Inez Boogaarts has been involved with the programme for many years and has extensive working experience in Germany and the Netherlands. Five years ago she evaluated the grant programme. Here are her most important experiences and lessons learnt, or Tipps & Besser Nicht’s, that still apply today.

‘However much you may differ from each other, the most important thing is that you have something in common that connects you. And that you are and remain curious about each other.’

I was asked to supervise the first ‘Meet&Greet’ in 2012, for what was then called ‘Jonge Kunst’, or Young Art. As an international cultural manager with experience in cross-border cultural collaboration, especially between the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany, we were an obvious match. Over time I saw a very diverse range of Dutch and German organisations, art and culture makers, performers and social workers meet each other and create new worlds together.

Working together is always a matter of careful exploration and getting to know each other; and this certainly applies where Dutch-German grant applications are concerned. For at the Dutch side it often involves art and culture organisations, but the German partners tend to be social-cultural organisations. ‘And each of these sectors really has its own DNA.’

I furthermore discovered that the Dutch side is accustomed to asking if there’s a potential audience for the project, and then to seek financial resources wherever it can to make the project happen. But this is not always the case with German organisations. ‘The idea that you might need to go find 50% of your funding somewhere else was a bit challenging for many German partners.’

‘Conversely, it may take Dutch partners aback to find that it’s very natural for German partners to first want to talk at length about the content of the project, before addressing the matter of money and marketing.’

Garage TDI with Staatstheater Oldenburg
Garage TDI with Staatstheater Oldenburg

What I have learned is that all these differences can be overcome. ‘However much you differ from each other, the most important thing is that you have something in common that connects you.’ At the core there is room for kindred spirits to meet each other and to create something together that neither party could have done on their own.

‘One example is Staatstheater Oldenburg, an organisation with at least 300 people, who worked with a smaller cultural education group in the province of Drenthe (Stichting Garage TDI, eds.) to set up a fantastic project.’ The interest that both parties had in each other resulted in so much learning back and forth. That applied to me, too. Reading about it on paper I might not have thought that this collaboration could be successful. But the more I heard about it, the more I thought wow! this really works! Professional and high-standard collaboration, and thereby strengthening each other. It was heart-warming!’

The corona pandemic has certainly made international collaboration a lot more challenging. It’s no longer possible to just quickly pop across the border, even to Germany. The countries don’t have the same corona rules, and many organisations have become more careful regarding what they will schedule in the coming months, since the conditions remain changeable (check with DutchCulture for the latest Covid information).

Do's and Don'ts

Here are some tips for organisations wishing to engage in cross-border collaboration:

  • Be realistic. There’s always a tendency to underestimate what international collaboration entails. It’s a lot of work, takes extra time, money and energy, and it requires resilience when setbacks occur. A healthy dose of naiveté obviously helps to jump in at the deep end and to embark on this adventure together. And, despite or actually thanks to the pandemic, some cultural organisations have managed to reach a very specific international audience through innovative live-streams or ‘on-demand offer’.
  • The fact that you each represent a very different type of organisation doesn’t mean that you can’t work together. You don’t both need to be a city theatre to create something special, new or different. Just remember: be curious about each other, pragmatic and flexible, and it’s the content that connects you together.
  • The pandemic has made us all familiar with online meetings and presentations, and even production. This can come in very handy when engaging in international collaboration. Still, it’s important to also meet face to face and to sniff each other, so to speak. Visiting each other’s home turf helps you to understand each other. You want to know how the other thinks, works and creates. The pandemic conditions have made this harder, but then ask your partner to take you on a live tour of the building and to let you sit in on meetings with staff members. Try to make it an exciting and interactive introductory tour. And do try to meet each other ‘live’ as soon as conditions permit. Certainly after such a long period of introversion and isolation, it’s good to throw open the windows and to suck up inspiration from your international partners. And make sure to remain (corona) flexible and have a number of scenarios ready to implement.
  • All the familiar prejudices are true: Dutch people are straight talkers and Germans are punctual; Dutch people think they know their languages while Germans only speak German; but don’t let these traits interfere. Discover the bright sides together and use them, perfect them. Be flexible, try again, and fail better.
  • Think before you act. And if you discover along the way that you don’t really get along (i.e., that you can’t make things work for substantive, financial, organisational or corona reasons), then don’t be afraid to pull the plug. It takes courage to do so, but that’s part of being professional.
  • Make clear and appropriate arrangements. Every collaborative project has its tense moments. Discuss the entire process beforehand and decide and record who does what, who’s responsible for what, and are the mutual expectations realistic? And make sure to keep discussing these matters regularly!
  • Working internationally is a skill unto itself. Does it suit your organisation’s strategy, and how much are you prepared to invest in terms of time, money, energy, communication tools and manpower, in the next three to five years? Are all your colleagues on the same page? Be sure to actively involve them from the start!
  • Besides corona, international collaboration is increasingly affected by matters of sustainability, diversity & inclusiveness and fair practices. This certainly applies to Dutch-German collaborations. And there’s so much you can learn from each other. Traveling by train, having multiple meetings within a single trip, and wasting less resources is a start. Actively approaching and engaging various local groups from outside your comfort zone is another important step. And agreeing to fair rewards for the makers on both sides of the border should be a matter of course.

Finally: you never know ahead of time what it will achieve, but collaborations generally end up achieving more than you anticipated. Just see, for example, those who went before you in the collaborative programme. Aside from this grant, many partners are already busy with a new joint project!

Inez Boogaarts works as international culture manager and consultant. She served as cultural attaché at the Dutch Consulate-General in Düsseldorf and as director of Stichting Internationale Culturele Activiteiten (now: DutchCulture). She also served as director of the Zukunftsakademie NRW, knowledge centre for diversity and cultural education in Bochum, until 2019. She currently works as an advisor in the field of international collaboration, transformation processes and diversity.

Would you like to apply?

Would you like to set up an international project with a collaboration partner, but are still in the process of figuring out whether you and the prospective partner make a good match? Or are you ready to go? Either way, the ‘International Collaboration’ grant programme, with the two options of ‘Exploration’ and ‘Collaboration’, is here to help. There are also open calls concerning topical themes and specific countries. Read more about the grant programme and application options here.

Inez Boogaarts
Inez Boogaarts