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Part 4 of Mike’s 5-part leadership series

Collaboration has surely become one of the all-time great buzzwords. Seemingly everyone aspires to be collaborative. Unfortunately, for every successful collaboration, there are dozens of “partnerships” and “alliances” that fail to achieve their potential.

In this fourth part of our series on social enterprise leadership, we share insights into how great coalitions are developed, and how they can provide structure to implement diverse strategies simultaneously, and the resilience to undertake long-term, complex projects—typical of those undertaken by social enterprises.

Back in the second part of this series on social enterprise leadership, we focused on how effective leaders engage others. They support their colleagues, they work hard to develop their organizations as a whole, and they are open and clear in their communications with their teammates. All these activities happen inside the organization. Collaboration reaches farther.

The complex problems faced by social entrepreneurs often require coalition-building—cooperation beyond the boundaries of their organizations.

At their simplest, coalitions can look like strategic partnerships. In the social impact sphere, these simple partnerships often take the form of cause marketing campaigns. Think in-kind sponsors’ engagement in the Race for the Cure. As they get more advanced, diverse networks of like-minded organization can coalesce around a shared vision. Such was the case with the ten-year Rainforest Solutions Project in western Canada.

The project aimed to protect a vast and pristine coastal rainforest on Canada’s west coast. This spectacular ecosystem is the last untouched coastal temperate rainforest in the world. It is home to hundreds of unique species, and to First Nations who have lived there for thousands of years. “Canada’s Amazon,” as it has been called, includes about one quarter of all the coastal temperate rainforest on Earth.

It was also commonly referred to in government policy documents as the “mid-coast timber reserve,” so it was essentially viewed as a commodity storage area, a heartbreaking misrepresentation of this priceless ecosystem. Perhaps the single greatest moment of genius in the Rainforest Solutions Project’s work was to rebrand the region as the Great Bear Rainforest.

The Rainforest Solutions Project was the organization set up to house a remarkable campaign. The systems approach that they took exemplifies the four key factors in effective coalition-building.

1. Network for results: The three founding partners in the project (Greenpeace, ForestEthics and Sierra Club BC) recognized that the diversity of stakeholders and interests in the region would require an equally diverse range of partners in the project. Their mission was to shift policy and enact new legislation that would be required to preserve the land. So they planned to engage absolutely everyone who had a stake in the ecosystem: politicians, industry, First Nations and others. Certainly, as few participants as possible makes any coalition easier to manage, but as many as necessary must be included to ensure positive results.

Many networks of organizations or individuals exist in every community, sector and profession. Our client, 1% for the Planet, is another in the environmental space: they’re a member network of companies who have committed to giving 1% of their revenues to environmental causes. Members and the NGOs to which they donate have advanced a long and diverse list of environmental issues, including stepping up in ad hoc consortiums in emergency situations.

The Social Venture Network recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Members of that group have established some remarkable social purpose campaigns and organizations (Net Impact emerged from SVN).

So networks are essential to effective collaboration, in that they establish a structure and a shared set of values upon which effective coalitions can be built.

2. Honour stakeholders: The second factor that Rainforest Solutions Project considered, and the second factor in effective coalitions, is the honouring of the needs and priorities of various stakeholders. Each group had a distinct vision for the region. Where some wanted the entirety of the land left inviolate into perpetuity, others wanted industrial development. Each of these perspectives were held as valid, but so too was the common ground, namely that a sustainable management approach was required. This requires leaders to assume positive intent on behalf of their partners in the coalition.

3. Openly share knowledge: Coalitions break drown when trust degrades. And trust degrades when communication isn’t forthright and clear. Open knowledge sharing across a coalition helps everyone understand the rate of progress, the challenges ahead, and the role they can play in moving a campaign or project forward.

Arguably, the most important audience for marketing and communications is made up of members of the coalition themselves. As more energy goes into member outreach and engagement, more goodwill accumulates between the parties, and resilience of the group increases.

Moreover, as knowledge is shared, and as more people understand the contributions being made by coalition members – and those stakeholders who elect not to join the coalition – the more the group can adopt a systems-perspective on the challenge they’re working to resolve.

In the Great Bear, some activist organizations that were not part of the coalition staged headline-grabbing protests on the one hand, while coalition members sat at the same table as industry and government, working on solutions. This multi-pronged approach is only possible in a coalition, and can only endure when “one hand knows what the other hand is doing.”

4. Navigate the socio-political context: Conflict is inevitable. At some point in the life of a coalition, parties will find themselves at odds with others in the network. Collaborative leaders effectively negotiate through conflict and mobilize support, building from shared vision and values.

Significant work must be undertaken up front to ensure the coalition is convened in support of a clear, shared vision. A well-framed vision is both aspirational (i.e. it describes the idealized end-state of the campaign or project) and actionable (i.e. individuals and groups can act each day consistently with the vision. Values – or guiding principles, or touchstones, whatever name they’re given – describe how members of the coalition will engage with one another, and govern their coalition-related activities. More than words on a wall, they must be a consistent guide for behaviour and decision-making.

Though it took 10 years, the Great Bear Rainforest campaign was ultimately successful. Canada’s west coast is home now to one of the largest protected areas in the world. New approaches to ecosystem-based forestry were launched in the region. And the campaign is frequently held up as a shining example of effective coalition-building.

Today, members of the Rainforest Solutions Project have their eyes set on another massive Canadian environment: the internationally noted oil sands development in British Columbia’s neighbouring province, Alberta. In the same way that the Rainforest Solutions Project engaged diverse stakeholders to protect the Great Bear Rainforest, the Tides Canada Energy Initiative, with which Junxion has been proud to work, is honouring industry’s perspective, while also building a network of partners to define a New Energy Vision for Canada (PDF: 2.8MB). Their early progress is encouraging.

Ultimately, effective coalitions succeed only when they’re collectively conscious of the broader system that encompasses all their individual members. And that will be the topic of the final part in this five-part series on social enterprise leadership: Systems Transformation.

Catch up on what you missed:

Part 1: Self-leadership for social entrepreneurs

Part 2: Social enterprise leadership: Engaging others

Part 3: Four keys to social enterprise leadership

Mike Rowlands
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Mike Rowlands is a Principal with Junxion Strategy. From offices in Vancouver, Toronto, London and Delhi, Junxion works with social enterprises, non-profits, corporations and governments to catalyze social and environmental progress. Learn more at @junxion @mrowlands

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