Blog (2011-2014)

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  • What Is The True Nature Of Partnerships?

    What Is The True Nature Of Partnerships?

    (image via Derek Beres)

    [written for the Design with Dialogue blog]

    Despite being held at 6pm in the middle of the workweek, the monthly Design with Dialogue meet-up, now in it’s fifth year, has established quite a steady following. March’s topic ‘What is the True Nature of Partnerships’ led by Mary Pickering of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund attracted 30 or so individuals eager to engage as both listeners and contributors in authentic dialogue. The session was rich with insights. Here are my top take-aways around contracts, money and forces.


    Drawing up a letter of intent, contract, or, in the case of a romantic partnership, a prenuptial agreement, is helpful because it forces us to go through the motions of discussing what assets exist, what our strengths are and how we can be fair with each other. However, if the partnership gets to the point where this agreement needs to be used, it often means a deeper betrayal occurred at some point and this issue(s) needs to be resolved before the partnership can be resumed. This highlights the need to think about succession and exit planning (less so for romantic partnerships of course) during the early stages of the partnership and to be very up front about timelines and needs.


    Contributing money doesn’t equal a true 'buy-in' (i.e., partnership) because one's personal value of money is weighted by how much you have in your purse. Mary explains that one of the fundamentals of true partnerships is that all parties “have skin in the game”, ie. contribute and incur risk by agreeing to engage. However, with agreements where power is imbalanced, such as those between investor and entrepreneur or music label and musician, it can be difficult to decipher whether an offer to engage is a transaction or a partnership. The intention of the engagement and level of commitment is the difference between a transaction (purely a business exchange, short-term in nature, and often a one-time deal) and a partnership (founded on reciprocity, cooperation and mutual growth and often long-term). These semantics are important because they have very different implications when things don’t go according to plan (and they never do). Simply bringing money to the table does not guarantee commitment, so how can we better neutralize these imbalances? 


    Forming partnerships can be hard enough, and, once formed, there are also forces working to pull them apart. Personal responsibilities, job requirements and navigating hiccups across projects all compete for our mental-bandwidth; thus, limiting the attention we can give to nurturing partnerships. Much like an untended garden that becomes overrun with weeds over time, unmaintained partnerships can take you steps backwards by growing once small nuisances into much larger issues or causing strain to relationships. Partnerships, like living organisms, need ongoing TLC to thrive.

    In the social innovation context, we are acutely aware that our complex systemic challenges (such as homelessness, income inequalities or climate change) cannot be solved in siloes. The growing need for cross-sector, cross-disciplinary collaboration to tackle these challenges amplifies the need for individuals skilled at managing and brokering partnerships. For more information about the process Mary described during the session, visit the Partnership Brokers Association website

    - Satsuko

    Related posts: The Art Of Collaboration (highlights from Montreal's 2013 Art of Hosting training), Partnering To Tip Systems (overview of Constellation Governance and Collective Impact models)

  • Partnering To Tip Systems

    Partnering To Tip Systems

    (image via Kozyndan)

    [Previously published on the Social Innovation Generation blog, the original motivation behind this post was to highlight an upcoming Partnership Brokers training in Toronto that SiG is helping to promote. However, once I started writing, I was struck by the fundamental role partnerships play in social innovation, particularly when building solutions for systemic/complex challenges. The resulting post looks at partnering through a systems lens and highlights two models that encourage cross-sector/multi-stakeholder partnerships. This post was updated on Nov 16, 2012: new training dates for the Partnership Brokers training were added at the bottom of the post]

    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 Helinski 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.

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

    1. Constellation model

    (image via University of Virginia)

    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)

    2. Collective Impact

    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).

    “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)

    Constellations and Collective Impact are effective methods of managing and navigating multi-stakeholder/partner collaborations. However, they 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, both methods behave like issue-agnostic labs.

    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 partnerthe cycles and principles of partnering and the benefits & risks of partnering.

    (Note: If you really want to amp up your partnering skills, UK based Partnership Brokers Association is holding a 4-day certification training in Toronto this November on the art of building/managing partnerships.) <- if you missed it, this training will be returning to Toronto in April 2013!

    What challenges have you had with cross-sector/multi-stakeholder partnerships and how did you over come them? What possibilty to you see for these kinds of partnership models?

    - Satsuko

    Examples of the Constellation Model in practice:

    For more on the Constellation model see:

    Examples of ‘Collective Impact’ in practice:

    For more on Collective Impact see:

    Related posts: Lab Landscape [Part 1]: Mazimizing The Potential Of Innovation Labs In Canada (explores lab dynamics which are similar to those of Constellation and Collective Impact partnering models) and Innovation At The Intersect Of Art & Society (great example of how a tri-sector partnership can bring delight to citizens)