How can we effectively lay the groundwork for social change in a world in which funding and time are scarce? According to the constellation model, the answer lies in nimble, high-impact collaboration.
Created by the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) in Toronto, the constellation model is a framework for effectively bringing diverse partners from multiple fields together to solve complex and pressing social problems. This model emerged from a specific CSI project with the goal of strengthening partnerships among child care, public health, and environmental organizations focused on addressing the environmental factors that affect children’s health in Canada. CSI’s experience reinforced that, in this era of dynamic social systems, change is more likely to occur through networked efforts between actors working in different fields and ecosystems than by organizations working alone.
Unlike traditional collaboratives that require universal agreement, top-down governance, and frequent meetings, the constellation model prioritizes flexible, lightweight partnerships that leverage each organization’s expertise and talents. Partners organize themselves around particular issues of interest, forming issue-based “constellations” that activate when there is high energy or strong opportunities and lie dormant when energy or opportunities wane.
This flexibility enables the model to be responsive to the needs and interests of the ecosystem of organizations and individuals working in a particular content area or towards a shared goal. “The constellations harness the power of loose coupling – enabling the right partners to come together based on their own interests and assets. This creates stronger action teams that are harnessing the power of self-interest within a shared vision.”1 The constellation model enables these “loose couplings” around partner-defined interests while avoiding top-down direction-setting and meeting fatigue.
The constellation model is comprised of three key elements:
- Lightweight governance
- Action-focused work teams (constellations)
- Third-party coordination
Constellation-based partnerships are created in response to a specific need, and are overseen by a stewardship group that provides lightweight governance. The stewardship group sets strategic direction, monitors the overall health of the partnership, and aligns constellations with the overarching goal of the group. This supervision is in contrast to more traditional, top-down models of governance in which leaders make decisions that must be followed by all members of the group.
Action-focused work teams, or constellations, are a way to accommodate tensions around differing priorities, which can be a challenge for newly formed collaboratives. In the constellation model, partner organizations have the freedom to start a “constellation” around their preferred topic or issue area, balancing the diverse interests of the group with the goal of high productivity.
Finally, to ensure that the partnership remains a level playing field between equals, an intermediary organization should provide third-party coordination. This prevents power from pooling in one partner, allows a neutral entity to onboard new partners, and supports overall coordination for collaborative work.
The constellation model is a framework for maintaining organizational independence while working nimbly with others by engaging only in issues that align with an organization’s interests. In a rapidly changing, complex ecosystem, it is one effective way to grow successful partnerships to solve critical problems.
The Constellation Model in Action in Los Angeles, CA
In 2008, in an effort to catalyze education and workforce systems change, UNITE-LA convened top leaders from L.A.’s key education, business, government, labor, and nonprofit sectors to form an unprecedented alliance. This effort resulted in the formation of the L.A. Compact, which has taken a constellation model approach to address large-scale education and workforce readiness problems in Los Angeles. The L.A. Compact is a partnership between 24 local organizations and institutions that are connected to the education and workforce readiness ecosystem including the Chamber of Commerce, LAUSD, the City and County of Los Angeles, First 5 LA, institutions of higher education, labor, local nonprofits, and businesses.
The signatories to the L.A. Compact have agreed to pursue three system-wide goals for Los Angeles:
- All students graduate from high school;
- All students have access to and are prepared for success in college; and
- All students have access to pathways to sustainable jobs and careers.
Through the constellation model approach, the L.A. Compact is able to provide its partners with opportunities to make progress towards these goals through a constellation of collaborative workgroups. While UNITE-LA initially served as the convener of these workgroups, the workgroups are now convened and supported by a range of partner organizations. See the L.A. Compact website for information about the current workgroups.
More detail and resources on the constellation model and its origins can be found on the Centre for Social Innovation’s website, including the article, “Listening to the Stars: the Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change,” by Tonya Surman and Mark Surman.
1. Surman, Tonya. Constellation Collaboration: A model for multi-organizational partnership. Center for Social Innovation. June 2006. http://socialinnovation.ca/sites/default/files/Constellation%20Model%20Description%20June%209%2706.pdf ↩