Letting them shine: Working with multi-organizational coalitions

A colleague and I were recently asked to facilitate a workshop for a large, multi-organizational coalition that included government, educational and non-profit stakeholders. The coalition includes over 25 organizations who have all joined forces to promote a particular aspect of education.

As facilitators, we were warned that the groups were having difficulty agreeing on a structure for their coalition network and that different stake holders came to the table with different values, philosophies and areas of expertise. Yet, they all wanted to work together. Their lack of consensus was causing concern among some members.

Traditional model of governance

The coalition had a leadership team comprised of senior members of some of the major organizations. The group had been working hard to define what the structure of their coalition would look like. Here is what they came up with:

Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Elaine Eaton, Sarah Eaton, facilitator, speaker, keynote, presenter

Characteristics of the traditional organizational structure

Org charts like this show the typical structure of a traditional organization. This chart could work for a business, a non-profit organization or a public sector organization. The characteristics that define them are fairly uniform:

  • Top-down model (Leaders are at the top)
  • Clear hierarchy
  • Orderly
  • Rigid
  • Governance-focussed
  • Straightforward and easy to understand

Why traditional models do not work for coalitions

In the traditional model there is an underlying assumption that all members who belong to the organization share the same values and that those who are lower down in the pecking order are less qualified, experienced or powerful than those at the top.

In a coalition, every member organization may have a structure like this. Or they may be a “flat organization” with very little hierarchy. In any case, in a coalition, you are bringing together collective wisdom and knowledge for a common purpose. A traditional model of governance does not work because a “pecking order” is unproductive. Members who are not at the top may feel confined and undervalued, when in fact, they have a great deal to contribute. Members at the top of the coalition may feel frustrated because they do not have all the answers and they sense disengagement from those who are lower down in the organizational structure. The result can be feelings of disempowerment, frustration, anger and ultimately, disengagement from the work that everyone has come together to do.

In addition, members may feel pressured to surrender their current organizational culture in order to become part of the new coalition. Members may feel that their identity as an organization is challenged.

The Constellation Model

We presented a different model for the member organizations to consider. This model was developed by Surman & Surman (2008). It captures the complex nature of multiple stakeholders working together based on shared interests and assets.

Constellation model of Social Change, Eaton International Consulting, Sarah Eaton, facilitator

At the top of the model is a “magnetic attractor”, or the purpose that caused all the groups to come together in the first place. This essentially becomes their guiding star, or in less “fluffy” language, their guiding principles. The larger group’s shared purpose is what guides them and drives their actions, defining how they will work together.

This model is light on governance. There is no separate legal entity or incorporation. Instead, action-focussed work teams called “constellations” take on the responsibility for moving certain pieces of the work forward. There is no obligation for a group to exist indefinitely. Once their work on a particular area has been completed, the constellation may be phased out, giving way to new constellations. This “phasing out” is seen as a natural progression of the work, rather than a source of anxiety. It does not mean that the foundation of the larger organization has been shaken in any way.

Instead of a traditional leadership team at the top, there is a stewardship group that serves to empower the various constellations. Their job is to set a strategic direction, monitor the coalition’s overall health. Then, it turns over the energy and power to the working groups. Each group takes the lead on a particular project or set of actions. The general terms of reference for the stewardship group are “as little process as possible”.

This model also includes a third-party secretariat whose job it is to coordinate the overall efforts of the project and troubleshoot problems. Surman and Surman point out that:

“When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically… (create) a secretariat within the partner who has the most capacity. This is seldom an ideal solution. Placing the coordination function within one of the partners permanently alters the power dynamic of the group. One partner takes power. The others defer responsibility and lose energy.”

In this model, the secretariat is responsible to both the stewardship team and the constellations.

Characteristics of the Constellation Model

  • Defining traits of this model are:
  • Organizationally complex
  • Lightweight governance
  • Messy
  • Exist through lightweight agreements between members
  • Fiscal and legal responsibility moves around depending on which partner is leading a constellation
  • Leadership and power are shared among members

Our process

We challenged the groups to consider the constellation model in more depth. We asked them which aspects of it resonated with them and how.

We did not tell members that their current structure was wrong or that they needed to change it. We simply presented the constellation model as a tool for further discussion.

Results

  • The group was able to engage deeply in a productive conversation about governance, leadership and structure.
  • Members gained insights into why a traditional organizational structure might not work for them.
  • Individuals who were feeling anxious and undervalued suddenly felt that they had options.
  • The group was able to acknowledge that a structure can be “messy” and still work.

Just as constellations in the sky may seem messy to the untrained eye, each functions well on its own. Sometimes stars burn out… and that is OK. In fact, it is normal and does not mean that the universe is falling apart. There is a natural ebb and flow to all work and process.

As facilitators we were astounded at the depth of conversation and levels of engagement. We brought the constellation to the table as a tool to generate dialogue. The unexpected result for us was a sense of relief, mixed in with excitement. Members felt that they had a better understanding of how many organizations could work together effectively without giving up their own identity or culture.

References:

Here are some of the resources that we drew upon in order to prepare for and deliver the workshop:

Byers, R. (2011). “Models and Elements of Collaborative Governance” from @ A Glance: A Resource of the Healthy Communities Consortium.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook. Bedford Heights, OH: Lakeshore Publishers.

Koch, J. (2005). The Efficacy of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in the Educational Context. (Master’s Thesis).University of Calgary, Calgary.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets. Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications.

Kretzmann, J. P., McKnight, J. L., Dobrowolski, S., & Puntenney, D. (2005). Discovering Community Power: A Guide to Mobilizing Local Assets and Your Organization’s Capacity. from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University: http://www.abcdinstitute.org/docs/kelloggabcd.pdf

Storti, C. (1990). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

Surman, T. (2006, March 15, 2012) Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership. Retrieved from http://www.socialinnovationexchange.org/files/event/attachments/Constellation%20Model%20Description%20June%209%2706.pdf

Surman, T., & Surman, M. (2008). Listening to The Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change. Social Space. Retrieved from http://socialinnovation.ca/sites/default/files/Constellation%20Paper%20-%20Surman%20-%20Jun%202008%20SI%20Journal.pdf

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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