Effective collaboration is the key to lasting impact

Joanne Sonenshine


Posted in: Guest Writers, Inclusive Business, Speaking Out, Strategy, Sustainable Development

Effective collaboration is the key to lasting impact

October 03, 2014

Joanne Sonenshine says that businesses cannot go it alone if they want to create a paradigm shift.


When I first approach organizations to test different models of collaboration, I almost always find support around the notion that partnership is critical in order to address challenges of pressing need. Certainly very few (if any) organizations can solve global problems on their own. The pushback usually comes when we start down the road towards collaboration and face one or more stumbling blocks. These may include a seeming lack of interest by prospective partners, or a kink in the flow of information share that makes alignment between partners tricky. While those brief interruptions are certainly possible, effective collaboration will almost always yield positive results, even if the process of getting there is slightly fraught with complications.

In one of the most concise and straightforward articles I have read on alliance building, McKinsey & Company authors  Marco Albani and Kimberly Henderson suggest collaborators should “be flexible in defining success.” They continue by claiming that “while your collaboration may not change the world in precisely the way you intend, it can still change the rules of the game in a positive way.” This message is one that any organization with even the smallest interest in partnership should heed. If we get too concerned about the endgame before we even begin, we will be stuck at square one with no power to move the needle in any direction.

One method for focusing partners on action is to have an unbiased facilitator directing organizational strategy and design of the collaboration. Albani and Henderson explain how getting professional help to assign roles and responsibilities and keep discussions (even heated ones!) moving will save organizations time and money. My organization, Connective Impact, was designed with that need in mind. Having worked for more than ten years in economic development, sustainability and policy I realized that I was capable of creating more effective collaboration by stepping away from my organizational affiliation and simply relying upon my negotiation skills.

My process is heavily weighted up front – I spend time one-on-one with each coalition participant to understand challenges, definitions of success and expectations. I then map goals and expected outcomes which I share with partners for alignment. It is much simpler to craft measurements of success when everyone begins from the same baseline. This process also ensures the right mix of partners.

One group that has prioritized collaboration for systemic change is the Coffeelands Food Security Coalition, a group of seven coffee organizations (Counter Culture Coffee, Farmer Brothers International, Keurig Green Mountain, S&D Coffee and Tea, Specialty Coffee Association of America, Starbucks Coffee and Sustainable Harvest) that joined forces in 2012 to tackle the growing challenge of seasonal hunger in coffee communities. In agreement that the power of each organization alone would not be enough to make lasting change, the group put aside competition or brands, and got to work immediately by piloting a food security project in Jinotega, Nicaragua with non-profit implementer Mercy Corps.

After the first year of the project, the Coalition recognized that a more comprehensive approach was needed. In April 2014 I was asked to help the Coalition design an industry-led effort to strengthen coffee communities. The idea is to expand the footprint of the Coalition, find innovative solutions to systemic risks, and scale investment.  Traditional hurdles like resource constraints, limited bandwidth or external pressure has not stopped this group from collaborating in large part because each member sees an unprecedented urgency to address coffee community challenges. We are now on a path towards tackling some of the biggest obstacles facing the future of coffee.

Another example of pushing the boundaries in collaboration is from international nonprofit Heifer International. Intent on better measuring the impact of their shared value programs, Heifer’s  Partnerships Directors Carol Moore and Marleen New researched existing efforts to measure qualitative impacts like technical assistance, employee engagement or knowledge share. In discussions with other organizations, public and private, a clear need arose for greater dialogue around this gap. A collective effort was formed. Heifer asked me to facilitate the development of a Community of Practice to examine solutions to this challenge. With participants from the private sector, non-profit community and government, we are energized by the collaborative spirit that brought us. Taking the initiative to convene nontraditional partners with similar challenges and intent to solve a problem is what makes this collective approach so exciting.

Collaboration is increasingly the modus operandi for organizations pushing systems change. While some organizations may find the process tough, it is never impossible. Bringing the right partners together fueled by similar passions and intent, and finding the right actor to push the group forward, collaboration can be more than effective – it can be transformational.


Joanne Sonenshine is Founder and CEO of Connective Impact, aiding organizations in strategic goal development, partnership creation, consensus building and focused thinking in order to solve some of the most complex problems of our time.


  1. AvatarLucian J. Hudson

    Excellent contribution from the facilitator and practitioner perspective – a space I too occupy. I am interested in such strong examples for the Annual Review of Social Partnerships.

    Lucian J. Hudson
    Director of Communications
    The Open University