September 2008

"In spite of current ads and slogans, the world doesn't change one person at a time. It changes as networks of relationships form among people who discover they share a common cause and vision of what's possible."

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Freize

The constellation model was developed by and for the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment (CPCHE). The model offers an innovative approach to organizing collaborative efforts in the social mission sector and shares various elements of the open source model. It emphasizes self-organizing and concrete action within a network of partner organizations working on a common issue.

Constellations are self-organizing action teams that operate within the broader strategic vision of a partnership. These constellations are outwardly focused, placing their attention on creating value for those in the external environment rather than on the partnership itself. While serious effort is invested into core partnership governance and management, most of the energy is devoted to the decision making, resources and collaborative effort required to create social value. The constellations drive and define the partnership.

The constellation model emerged from a deep understanding of the power of networks and peer production. Leadership rotates fluidly amongst partners, with each partner having the freedom to head up a constellation and to participate in constellations that carry out activities that are of more peripheral interest. The Internet provided the platform, the partner network enabled the expertise to align itself, and the goal of reducing chemical exposure in children kept the energy flowing.

Building on seven years of experience, this article provides an overview of the constellation model, discusses the results from the CPCHE, and identifies similarities and differences between the constellation and open source models.

Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment

In 2000, a small group of Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) started talking about children's environmental health. Coming from a variety of backgrounds such as childcare, public health, and environmentalism, these groups were increasingly worried about the risks posed to children by toxics and other environmental hazards. Yet, no one group on its own had the mandate, skills or resources to deal with this complex issue. They realized there was only one way to address this growing issue: working together. This decision resulted in the creation of the CPCHE, with the aim of working together to create a healthy environment for children in Canada.

The decision to work together led quickly to a slate of thorny questions. How would they set collective goals? Would they have to agree on everything? How could they preserve their autonomy and diversity? Who would be in charge? How could they best leverage each others' talents? The group knew they wanted to create a flexible, lightweight and adaptable partnership, not a heavy new umbrella NGO. With this in mind, they developed the constellation model of partnering.

Constellation Model

The constellation model is designed to bring together multiple groups or sectors working toward a joint outcome. The focus is on action rather than dialogue. Public education, service delivery, research and other tangible social change activities are handled by small, self-organizing teams called constellations. These teams are threaded into the overall partnership which is held together using a governance and management framework that balances leadership amongst all participating partners. The aim is not to create a new organization, but to get things done in a nimble, high impact manner.

Figure 1 shows the main components of the constellation model. Key to the success of the model are: lightweight governance, action focused teams and third-party coordination. These three elements make it possible to respond quickly to new ideas while still working on more protracted issues and preserving organizational autonomy within the collaborative. Partners apply the principle of emergence, listening for new opportunities that relate to the primary strategic work of the group. The constellation structure allows them to respond quickly to these opportunities, to only engage with the activities that matter to them, and to stay away from activities that don't align with their interests. Constellations are not a monolithic set of integrated projects, but rather loosely coupled coordinated initiatives. This loose coupling is central to maintaining autonomy while ensuring that the group is moving towards it strategic goals..

Figure 1: The Constellation Model

Lightweight Governance

A constellation-based partnership is created in response to a need or opportunity that begs attention. This need or opportunity is described as a magnetic attractor. Its draw will determine the level of priority that the partners will give to the work of the partnership. It will determine the level of energy and initiative taken, as well as the scope of work and the circle of partners who choose to join in.

For CPCHE, the initial magnetic attractors were the need to raise awareness and mobilize action around toxic exposures and children's environmental health. In particular, the group wanted decision-makers, service providers and caregivers to understand the pressing need to address both well known threats such as use of lead jewellery and emerging threats such as biphenol A in plastic baby bottles. Although organizations were trying to work on these issues individually, it was clear that they were competing with each other for scarce resources and that their actions were uncoordinated. This resulted in confusion and limited impact.

Once the group was formed around the magnetic attractor, they needed to quickly form a stewardship group, known as a coordinating committee, to serve the broader collective vision. In small partnerships, this group can be composed of representatives from each of the partnering organizations. In larger partnerships and networks, it may be made up of well-trusted members of the broader group who voluntarily step forward. However this group is defined, its members act as stewards of the community interest and the work that is being undertaken in relation to the magnetic attractor, and not as representatives of their organization's interests. Each organization will be able to pursue its self-interests through the constellations.

The stewardship group is responsible for the overall health of the partnership and ensuring that constellations are aligned with the purpose of the partnership. In CPCHE's case, this work started with the creation of three key documents. The first document provided a set of guiding principles and defined the magnetic attractor that the group would focus on. It stated: "... all children and adults have the right to know about proven and potential hazards to their environmental health and safety." The second document provided governance terms of reference including a partnership agreement and framework to guide how the partners will work together. The third document was a strategic plan that articulated overarching goals related to changing practices of parents and childcare workers and shifting policy to protect children. The three documents provided a framework to support clear action on behalf of the partners.

Action-Focused Work Teams

Constellations can be formal projects, opportunistic initiatives, or working groups that guide particular aspects of the work of the partnership. While they are focused around practice and the specific interests of members, they must also be consistent with the overall vision and plan of the partnership. Two elements are needed to create a constellation: i)a need or opportunity; and ii) energetic leadership by one or more partner. When a constellation starts up, the participating partners define terms of reference. What are their goals? How do they want to work? The group also discusses who amongst them should provide the energy to play a leadership role, who has the organizational capacity to be the financial lead and what role each of the members will play. Roles and responsibilities are matched with the assets of each group. Leadership moves from partner to partner, as does any potential funding that may be associated with the constellation.

Constellations have a number of characteristics that make them different from traditional committees. They privilege initiative takers over position and authority. Money and responsibility are spread around. When the need or opportunity has been met, constellations can be creatively destroyed or wound down. As each constellation is permeable -- groups can leave or join at will -- there is a natural pressure to remain relevant. Also, they are meant to be small pieces of a strategic whole, weaving together a bigger picture of the partnership within the ecosystem.

Between 2001 and 2008, CPCHE began over 15 different constellations anchored around issues such as pesticide by-laws, promoting awareness amongst health and child care workers, and monitoring toxic substances, mercury, consumer products, and lead exposures. More than half of the constellations created have been phased out because the goals have been achieved or there is no longer energy. Clearly, this approach has allowed the partners to galvanize quickly around a specific issue and then to disband when the issue has been addressed or when the energy of the group wanes. This has happened without disrupting the vision or stability of the overall partnership.

Third-party Coordination

When non-profits set up collaborative projects, they typically house the secretariat function within one of the partners, usually the partner with the most capacity. However, placing the coordination function within one of the partners completely and permanently alters the power dynamic of the group. When one partner takes power, the others defer responsibility and many partners lose energy and motivation.

With the constellation model, the secretariat or coordination function resides outside of the core partners. Staff are either consultants or work for a third party intermediary organization. These people should be familiar and interested in the nature of the collaborative work, but should not have a seat at the table as a content provider. Their job is to support the process of the collaboration by guiding the planning process, facilitating meetings, supporting new constellations, fundraising for joint projects, mediating conflict, helping information to flow, and building the overall capacity of the group to work towards their desired outcome.

At the core of the secretariat is at least one person committed to helping the group along. This is not a junior coordinator position as a highly skilled and discriminating person who embodies collaborative leadership is required. Effectively, this position is the Executive Director of the partnership, but with a focus on process rather than content. Their purpose is to support the content experts who are drawn from the organizations that make up the partnership. This person must strike a balance between driving the group process forward with nurturing leaders from the partner organizations.

In the constellation model, fiscal and legal responsibility moves around in order to avoid creating a new organization. Constellations drive the model: leadership and resources for these constellations are constantly coming from different places and going to different organizations. The member managing a particular project takes legal and fiscal responsibility for that project. This "in motion" money and power management ensures that active partners are compensated for their initiative and makes it less likely that the money and power will pool in one partner. It is the role of the secretariat, in concert with the stewardship group and the funding community, to balance the flow of leadership and money. The secretariat must have a commitment to building the capacity and involvement of the less active members.

One challenge with the lack of incorporation is the ability to amass core funding to pay for the secretariat. Most grant funded organizations cover these costs by charging an overhead fee. However, with no grants going directly to the partnership as a whole, there is no overhead fee to serve this purpose. CPCHE's solution was to allocate a portion of the administrative fees from each grant that the partners received to the running of the secretariat. In a case where standard overhead fees are 15%, 10% was retained by the lead partner and 5% allocated to the running of the partnership itself. This ensured that, over time, some unrestricted income is accumulated to be used at the discretion of the stewardship group to serve the collaboration. Initially these funds were held in trust by one of the partners. Now, the trust fund sits with the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, an organization that is in the business of providing third-party support services for initiatives like CPCHE.

The constellation model can not work without the Internet. Tools like e-mail lists, tracking changes in documents, and a shared web site are critical to facilitating collaboration amongst the group. Collaboration happens at meetings, online, and over the phone between meetings. The "space between" is especially critical in making sure that the group is fully informed and engaged.

Results and Challenges

The constellation model has created a resilient ecosystem in Canada comprising more than 1000 thought leaders and service providers who work on children's environmental health issues. There are provincial collaborations on children's environmental health emerging in the provinces of Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. There are new links amongst industry, government and NGOs as a result of CPCHE's collaborative approach to policy consultation. This network mesh represents an important asset for addressing the environmental threats to children in the coming years.

There are a number of easy to identify achievements. Partners: i) implemented a model they designed seven years ago; ii) collectively raised $3 million for children's environmental health work, and leveraged millions more of in kind resources; and iii) produced a number of important publications on environmental health risks for children, ranging from research on the control of toxic substances to accessible plain language guides that help parents and daycare workers keep children safe.

Harder to measure achievements are also evident. First, application of the model resulted in an observable shift from competition to collaboration, both amongst the partners and within the broader children's environmental health space. Second, CPCHE's work has influenced changes to the Pest Control Products Act, the Chemicals Management Plan for Canada, and the Mandatory Core Guidelines for Health Promotion in Ontario. It helped shape the debate around the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act and sparked discussions about reopening the Canadian Hazardous Products Act. In April 2008, the Minister of Health announced a ban on bisphenol A in baby bottles. He articulated that the government would use a precautionary approach in its review of chemicals through the Chemicals Management Plan. This sparked a market transformation which has seen a near disappearance of bisphenol A in products sold in Canada. It has also set a precedent for banning a substance. This decision is a direct result of the work of CPCHE's talented partners and its powerful approach to social change. The breadth of knowledge and diverse constituency represented by CPCHE partners has been central to this success in the realm of policy.

Third, CPCHE has helped improve practices on-the-ground amongst health and day care workers. Over 1500 health and child care workers have attended CPCHE health promotion workshops where they learn about environmental risks to children and ways to avoid these risks. As a result, more people working in health care are paying attention to environmental risk factors for children.

The partnership has struggled at times. The most significant challenges have been around capacity and speed. Building the capacity of all the partners to contribute in a meaningful way is essential. Special effort was needed early on to ensure that smaller partners had the ability to play as equals in the group. There is now an element of group readiness to create constellations. However, it took a lot longer than was expected to get the group to this point.

Similarities and Differences with Open Source Model

Over the past few years, we have seen an increasing number of efforts to draw the experience of open source into new domains. Work in areas like open educational resources build upon the open source approach quite literally, encouraging teachers to openly license, share and remix educational content. Efforts in areas like open philanthropy are less literal, drawing more on the ethos and practices of open source and less on the idea of producing open digital artefacts. Open Source Comparison

The constellation model falls in this second camp, drawing inspiration from open source. Some of the elements that the constellation model shares with open source include:

  1. Action teams come together to achieve a goal based on mutual self interest where the balance between community and self drives peer production.
  2. Clear but lightweight coordination structures ensure that individual and organizational energies align towards achieving the greater goal.
  3. Meritocracy is balanced with inclusion as the best ideas and approaches rise to the top and are strengthened by the expertise of the community.
  4. Individuals and groups get in or out at any time based on their own interests and needs.
  5. Leadership and community health are valued.

The main differences are:

  1. The constellation model focuses on promoting social values while the open source model focuses on digital assets that can be distributed under open source licenses.
  2. The lack of focus on digital assets means it is not easy to fork a team. The right to fork is not only missing, it would be antithetical to the need to coordinate activities towards the magnetic attractor.
  3. The constellation model draws teams from partner organizations in an ecosystem while the open source model draws individuals from anywhere.

The links between open source thinking and the constellation model are not accidental. A number of people involved in the early design of the constellation model were involved in open source projects. The constellation model intentionally drew on the practices of open source from its inception.


The CPCHE collaboration happened in a high impact and relatively nimble fashion which is not typical in social mission partnerships. CPCHE used open source-like organizing to move the market in toxics and chemical safety, having a direct effect on policy in Canada and ripple effects globally. It has also built a lasting network of people committed to children's environmental health.

The constellation has the potential to help organizations solve concrete problems within the context of a rapidly changing, complex social issue ecosystem. Other organizations like the Ontario Nonprofit Network, Front Line Partners for Youth and are now experimenting with the model.

The CPCHE constellation example shows that we can maintain organizational independence and collaborate effectively with others. This is the way we need to work to drive social innovation.

This article was adapted from Listening to the Stars: The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change published in the first edition of Social Space, a journal published by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the Singapore Management University.

Recommended Resources

Ralph Stacey's Agreement & Certainty Matrix

Social Innovation Think Pieces

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This is a very interesting article. Thank you. I like the way emphasising 'Magnetic Attractors' puts identifying 'catalysing opportunities' that further a partnership's work up there alongside overall purpose and high level goals. I also like the way the model encourages and rewards emergent leaders who possess the knowledge, skills and above all enthusiasm that will really make a positive difference to a partnership's work. Two things,for me, are crucial to this model's effectiveness: 1. It must be given enough time to work. As mentioned above, some partners will inevitably need significant support and capability building in order to contribute effectively and fulfil their potential within the constellation. 2. (linked to the previous point), I feel the 'between space' needs to be supported not only by technology but also by 'magnetised brokers' within the system who possess sort after knowledge, skills and experiences that will attract existing and potential partners. (These partners can then be more easily introduced to each other and perhaps encouraged to joined up as, how and when required.

This is a very interesting article. Thank you. I like the way emphasising 'Magnetic Attractors' puts identifying 'catalysing opportunities' that further a partnership's work up there alongside overall purpose and high level goals. I also like the way the model encourages and rewards emergent leaders who possess the knowledge, skills and above all enthusiasm that will really make a positive difference to a partnership's work. Two things, for me, are crucial to this model's effectiveness: 1. It must be given enough time to work. As mentioned above, some partners will inevitably need significant support and capability building in order to contribute effectively and fulfil their potential within the constellation. 2. (linked to the previous point), I feel the 'between space' needs to be supported not only by technology but also by 'magnetised brokers' within the system who possess sort after knowledge, skills and experiences that will attract existing and potential partners. (These partners can then be more easily introduced to each other and perhaps encouraged to joined up as, how and when required.

If possible, I'd like to know more specifically what challenges the partners faced, and exactly what capacity building work was done.