Eight Insights for Alliances

If you’re trying to change a system or build a new one, collaborating with like-minded people with aligned interests is a likely occurrence. Whether it’s growing the social enterprise ‘sector’, an ‘ecosystem’ of support for startups or government alliance to improve regional economic development, cooperating with others on advocacy, investment attraction and learning from each other makes sense.

These new alliances are often formed through frustration at current institutions or culture, a vision of something different and willingness to invest a a lot of intellect and energy in addressing it. However despite often being comprised of the brightest and most successful talent in a sector, success in ‘coalitions of the willing’ is far from assured. I’ve written previously about the conditions enabling of successful collaboration within alliances, and this post is to share share some insights into how these alliances can be effective in their mission and context.

First some background.

While Buckminster Fuller advises to avoid fighting then obsolete and existing, there’s a lot to be said for taking as much energy, resources, talent and money as you can from the old to grow the new. The success of attracting investment of energy or attention to the new depends on the ability of advocates to sell something to the old that doesn’t yet exist, is new and emerging. This education and sales process is often happening even while the old and obsolete is arguably at its peak: operating effectively with workable and enshrined rules, but where out-dated norms and institutions and vested interests dominate.

An example in Australia is that as our national attention shifts from selling commodities to attracting external investment in innovation. While existing institutions are still advocating on behalf of wealthy incumbents and their existing business models, new alliances are draw attention and money towards the next wave of ventures that will generate new export dollars and social benefits.

S-curve trajectories

Each new alliance is their own ‘startup’, in a way: moving from the seed of an idea with governance, business model, legitimacy and effectiveness developing along the way to realising the intended impact, changing the system they work in. They are also arguably more complex than a startup, having multiple foci, markets, proposes and participants with different motivations, and and probably have the intention of disappearing or becoming less relevant once the transition is complete.

Given that context, here are eight insights into factors enabling of effectiveness and sustainability of alliances:

1. Shifting the Centre

Any new alliance must clearly represent a ‘movement’: a shift from one mindset than another, new types of organisations etc. The shift must be embodied and necessarily marginalise something that was previously central. You can’t convince others by pointing from afar, you must stand in the future model/mindset you are advocating for and invite others to shift their perspective or position. An example from the social enterprise sector would be peak representative bodies operating as social enterprises themselves.

2. Serve best by putting first

Effective alliances seem to need upfront investment and commitment by those with a primary interest in the health of the system, and a secondary financial or personal interest in its success. Waiting for government or someone else with power to invest in something affects the power dynamics and ability to realise the mission. The financial or personal interest can keep people with martyred tendencies motivated in moments of doubt, failure or frustration. An example from StartupWA is that Directors share a common ethos of wanting the sector to succeed, and also have jobs or lead organisations whose business model depends on that success.

3. Active listening

Effective alliances must be open, have direct mechanisms for incorporating feedback from others, and let those they represent that they’ve heard them. Claims of representation without hard-wired mechansims for democratic election, consultation or deliberation is probably ego-aggrandisement. Whether a structure like an incorporated association, open democratic elections of Directors, regular stakeholder forums or annual ‘ecosystem reports’  the leaders must actively seek guidance from those they serve, confirm they’ve heard it, especially if they don’t agree with or like it.

4. Redirecting returns

Investment in these alliances should be conditional on the degree to which they attract and redirect investment into others they represent. The founders of such networks are often charming, intelligence and skilful with their own marginal business models, and a test for them and supporters is how much of that talent actually translates into cash, policies or opportunities for those the claim to serve. An example from Pollinators is that we generally prioritise supporting crowdfunding campaigns for member’s ventures and outsourcing contract opportunities to members to deliver over fundraising for ourselves or growing our core staff team.

5. Measuring progress

Clear metrics and measures of success that are openly reported and to which the organisations are held to account. Without clarity on the facts and metrics of progress alliances can become decided about their own importance and impact, making them unable to share, learn and grow. An example is that CBRIN produces fantastic and detailed annual reports that support the annual multi-million dollar investment into the network. From an outside perspective, this is very powerful in enabling objective assessment of their effectiveness and merit.

6. Influencing over directing

They seek to influence power, not wield it directly. Influencing is essential and enables an independent stance from government or corporate power. Actually being in a position of power to direct funding, investment or policy is a completely different role, dynamic and the primary purpose of an alliance. If an alliance seeks to control funding, investment or policy directly, I would be suspicious of their motives, primary allegiances or ability to succeed long-term.

7. Avoiding cannibalism

Alliances must discover a business model that doesn’t compete or cannibalise others in the ecosystem. It’s relatively easy to get money from business leaders and bureacrats for a shiny new ‘meta’ initiative that promises a lot and looks great as an adornment and endorsement of the legitimacy of the institution. However, actually figuring out a long-term value proposition that keeps the alliance independent while also in close relationship with stakeholders is very, very tricky. This is especially the case because alliance member’s own model may be marginal; they could compete for the same money or resources as the alliance itself, and there may already be other membership-based or sponsor-funded initiatives in the same sector or geography.

8. Learning collectively

As well connected, well informed and bright the alliance members may be, chance are when you get them together to talk they will each learn something new as well as learning collectively. By their very nature these alliances are guiding something new and emerging, there’s honestly lot of ‘not knowing’ and so must be investment in learning from mistakes, sharing insights from other similar alliances, and anticipating collective challenges. So, investment in collective catch-ups and reflective conversations are essential.


If you have feedback, comments or find this useful. I’d love to know, just comment below of get in touch via Twitter @ArOuthwaite

These insights and opinions are my own, taken from leading, following or involvement in:

  • Pollinators Inc – started as a growing community of social entrepreneurs and now a standout network, coworking space and social enterprise in regional Australia. I co-founded the organisation.
  • StartupWA – formed to advance the startup economy in WA and structured as a NFP Company Limited by Guarantee, inspired by StartupAus and similar intiatives in other states. I’m a Director.
  • Greater Geraldton Governance Alliance – formed to collaborate on regional economic development and structured as a committee of the local government. Disclosure: I was deputy chairperson.
  • Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Alliance – a coalition of 15 social enterprise incubators and consultants and structured as a ‘constellation’ model of governance. I represented Pollinators in this alliance.
  • Canberra Innovation Network – formed to suppport and promote innovation in Canberra and a NFP with charity status, and publishing transparent reports on its achievements and operations. I just like what they do, from afar.
  • TechSydney – recently announced as an alliance of the top tech companies in Sydney to replicate the success of Silicon Valley, and sparking interesting online commentary and discussion about its merits. Just interested in how they form.
  • Progress Midwest – an emerging initiative spun out of Mid West Development Commission, City of Greater Geraldton and an network of organisations suppporting business. I represent Pollinators in the supporting network.

1 comment

  1. Thanks Andrew, this is really useful. As we form the “alliance” of Yoga for Pain Care Australia I will make sure we pay careful attention to this guidance.

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