Social Innovator Wisdom: Partnering To Tip Systems

When developing solutions for complex systemic issues, social innovators know it is futile to operate in silos.

“We act like systems in creating large-scale problems but we act like individuals in trying to solve them” – Eric Trist, Social Scientist and Co-Founder of the Tavistock Institute

In a recent talk, Dan Hill of Helsinki Design Lab explains that ‘wicked’ or complex problems are unclear and interdependent, with no client to take responsibility “except the entire human race”. We are very much all in this together, so what better way to take a whole-system approach and pull in wisdom from different perspectives/stakeholders than via partnerships.

(image via Western Washington University)

Here are two progressive models for tri-sector / multi-stakeholder partnering…

1. Constellation model
This model for complex organizational collaboration, developed by Toronto’s own Tonya (CSI) & Mark Surman (Mozilla), is an excellent tool for managing and collaborating across multi-organizational partnerships. The beauty of the model is that it allows multiple interested stakeholders to form a ‘working group’ of partners without having to create a separate umbrella organization. Not creating a separate entity allows the groups to 1) minimize infrastructure and administrative costs 2) avoid creating competition for their own respective organizations and 3) avoid confusing their clients/customers/user groups. It is a way to pool resources and skills, create a shared voice, coordinate strategy, jointly fundraise, and take an action focus towards a shared goal, all while preserving organizational autonomy. Thus, the model is ideal for long-term complex solution building.

(image via CSI)

Examples of the Constellation Model in practice:

For more on the Constellation model see:

2. Collective Impact
“Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated impact of individual organizations.” – John Kania & Mark Kramer (Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011)

Most simply, ‘Collective Impact’ can be explained as a coordinated effort by multiple parties towards a unified goal. Kania and Kramer have identified five conditions for successful collective impact: a common agenda (agreement of primary goals, common understanding of problem, shared vision for change), shared measurement systems (consistent metrics and activity reporting), mutually reinforcing activities (coordinated and different activities performed by different stakeholders), continuous communication (common vocabulary, building trust, frequent meetings that are taken seriously by executives and often guided by external facilitators), and backbone support (separate organizational support staff to coordinate, plan, and manage the initiative).

(image via Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Examples of ‘Collective Impact’ in practice:

For more on Collective Impact see:

Constellations and Collective Impact have both proven incredibly effective and require a deep commitment from partners in terms of time, energy and financial resources. While there are other nuances between the two models, what stands out is that one uses an umbrella or ‘backbone’ organization while the other avoids one. Also, Constellations bear resemblance to some longer term Innovation Lab processes.

Partnering is not new and there are a number of other useful models including funder collaboratives (ex. FCYO), public-private partnerships (also: PPP, P3, or P3), public sector/citizen partnerships (co-production), etc. For more on partnerships, check out The Partnering Initiative for excellent resources on when to partner, the cycles and principles of partnering and the benefits & risks of partnering.

How are you and your organization using partnerships?
What innovative uses of partnerships are you seeing sprout up?


NOTE: SiG is the local promotional partner for the UK-based Partnership Brokers Association’s Toronto training this November. This four-day training course will take place at the historic Campbell House in the heart of downtown Toronto: 5,6,8,9 November 2012 – with a day off on 7 November. Application deadline is Sept 17th 2012.

What is Partnership ‘Brokering’?: “There is a growing demand worldwide from business, public sector, civil society and donor agencies for greater competence in scoping and managing the partnering process in non-traditional partnerships and cross-sector collaboration. A partnership ‘broker’ is someone who works as an intermediary building effective and innovative collaboration. Partnership brokers can be either internal – responsible for negotiating or managing partnerships on behalf of their organization – or external – those offering independent partnership brokering services.”

About Partnership Brokering Association: “Established in 2003, the globally recognised Partnership Brokers Training Scheme builds the practical brokering skills and professional practices necessary to address complex challenges in the partnering process at all phases of a partnership’s life cycle.”

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Satsuko VanAntwerp About Satsuko VanAntwerp

Satsuko is a business thinker who loves figuring out what makes people tick. She is a Partner and Business Ethnographer at InWithForward, a social enterprise that works with people, professionals, and policy-makers to turn social safety nets into trampolines. Prior to joining InWithForward, she was a manager at Social Innovation Generation, where she led the Lab program. She holds an International Masters of Business Administration from Schulich School of Business, with a minor in Social Entrepreneurship from Copenhagen Business School.

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