Real Leaders

If You Love a Concept, Let It Go: Scaling Impact through Partnership

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

“Possess something to make it profit you; take it as nothing to make it useful for you.” Laozi, Daodejing, Ryden translation. In his recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Scale = Partnership,” Roshan Paul argues that “the same market mechanism and economies of scale that enable a corporation to scale in the private sector don’t work as efficiently in the social sector.”

His analysis of an Ashoka Globalizer Program study show that the complexity of engaging new populations and the need for additional funding often scale faster than impact. True partnership – sharing your most important ideas and models – then becomes essential to successfully and rapidly scaling the impact of a beneficial innovation. What Roshan Paul fails to mention in his otherwise excellent article is that, put frankly, partnering sucks.

It’s hard, you no longer have full control over your own idea, and you don’t get all the credit for success. In a culture obsessed with the myth of the individual entrepreneur, there is very little incentive to share an innovative concept with outside partners. To create the greatest impact – ostensibly the primary goal of any true entrepreneur – therefore requires one of the most challenging tasks for any leader: giving up power and ignoring the demands of ego.

I’ve seen this become a stumbling block from some of the most promising social entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, but I’ve also seen it overcome with a surprising grace (although not necessarily with ease). One outstanding example is the development and launch of Central City Coffee, a gourmet coffee brand in Portland, Oregon that provides job training and employment to the formerly homeless and those in recovery. This social enterprise was developed in close partnership with a range of individuals and organizations, in a manner that could never have occurred with a singular owner.

Central City Coffee is a business program of Central City Concern (CCC), a nonprofit working to address homelessness and addiction in Portland, Oregon through a continuum of services including affordable housing, healthcare and recovery, job training and employment. Their major innovation, and success, lies in vertically integrating the essential services needed for someone to return to full self-sufficiency.

Despite this integration, partnerships remain an essential part of their model at all elves, from a manufacturer building bedbug-resistant bedframes developed by CCC staff to an employment program cleaning streets with the support of a local business alliance. Central City Coffee is a perfect example of this partnering model. Adrienne Karecki, then director of CCC’s business enterprises division, and David Griswold, founder of Sustainable Harvest, a social enterprise coffee importer, developed the original concept.

Both organizations were part of Portland State University’s (PSU) Social Innovation Incubator. As an employee of Sustainable Harvest at the time, I was tasked with moving the concept forward, but it quickly became clear that the company could not provide the type of support that CCC needed.

However, PSU MBA students working with the Incubator’s director, Cindy Cooper, had developed a feasibility study that showed the concept was viable – with a different approach. When I left Sustainable Harvest to become a freelance consultant, CCC hired me to refine the concept with extensive pro bono support form local coffee industry expert, Marcus Young.

We developed a partnership with Portland Roasting to handle the capital-intensive sourcing and roasting operations, while CCC would focus on the product development, marketing and sales of the new brand. Shortly before Adrienne left CCC, Marcus was hired to launch Central City Coffee. Their products are now available on store shelves. Central City Coffee was an example of leaders with a great idea sharing, supporting, and stepping away from it when needed – not based on their own interests, but with an understanding of what was necessary to make the venture successful.

The business was developed through extensive, evolving partnerships with individuals, businesses and universities. Each step of the way, Adrienne Karecki guided the process without ever compromising its ability to grow and scale. You won’t find her, or many of the other contributors, on the brand’s website – not because they’ve been left out, but because they don’t need to be listed. The company’s impact speaks for itself, and not to their egos.

As more businesses pursue collaboration in pursuit of greater impact, I hope they keep in mind Adrienne’s example: “The Sage acts but requires no thanks, accomplishes [her] tasks but does not abide in them” (Daodejing). Therein lies one of the most important approaches to authentic partnerships and real leadership.

Photo credit: Central Coffee Concern


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