Listening to the Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Change

Surman, M. & Surman, T. (2008). Listening to the stars: The constellation model of collaborative change. Social Space: 24-29.

“The Constellation Model of Collaborative Governance is a complexity-inspired framework designed to ‘hold’ collaborations within dynamic systems. Balancing chaos and order, energy and structure, the governance model supports multi-organization partnerships and networks within complex systems.”

This is a brief description found on an update to the Constellation Model posted by the Centre for Social Innovation. At this link you will find additional documents and updates on the Constellation Model and its application in the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment. You will also see examples of the model used by the Ontario Nonprofit Network and the Ontario Literacy Coalition.

This is an interesting article for anyone who is working in and/or supporting collaborations for social change but who is struggling with heavy governance that drives you to ask questions like:

How would collective goals be set?
Would they have to agree on everything?
How could autonomy and diversity be preserved?
Who would be ‘in charge’?
How could they best leverage each other’s talents?

Lightweight governance
• Develop a stewardship group with simple governance documents including: 1) guiding principles; 2) terms of reference; and 3) strategic plan that establishes goals
• This is light touch governance. Day to day coordination of the partnership is managed by a third party (see below)

Action focused work teams
“Within the broader strategic vision of the partnership, constellations take the form of clusters of activity in which a subset of the partners voluntarily participate. They can be formal projects, opportunistic initiatives or working groups. They must however act consistently with the partnership’s overall vision”.
• Funding for the work of different constellations is shared among that constellation’s membership, balancing power and funding the member that has the skills and capacity

Third party coordination
• This is the most interesting element to me. Someone else (not the constellations or the stewardship group) manages the day to day. The rationale is “When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically address this need by creating 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.”

These three elements help to overcome the old models where distrust and competition is at the core of collaboration. But the article recognizes that too much trust can also be detrimental as it risks creating a clique that excludes new members.

This is also a cautionary tale. It took the Canadian Partnership “five years for the partners to fully grow into and understand” the Constellation Model. But once they did they were able to “maintain organizational independence and collaborate nimbly with others.”

Questions for brokers:

1. Compare and contrast the Constellation Model with Collective Impact.
2. The third-party coordinator manages day to day activities like facilitating meetings, supporting new constellations, fundraising, communications, planning, dispute resolution. How do you find a third-party coordinator who is not a member of a constellation but is invested enough in the issue to do all the work?
3. How are you supporting the capacity development of others in your own constellations?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on knowledge mobilization more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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