Convening Unconventional Allies To Bring Change

2/18/2019 : Lauren Kickham, Director of Product Management at Vulcan Inc.

Convening Unconventional Allies To Bring Change

2/18/2019 : Lauren Kickham, Director of Product Management at Vulcan Inc.

At Vulcan, we often talk about our power to convene people. Taking it a step farther, I believe it’s our ability and foresight to convene unconventional allies that is a critical component of our success. By bringing together seemingly unlikely collaborators, we not only design more robust solutions to the world’s hardest problems, we increase the likelihood those solutions get integrated into the broader ecosystem and endure long-term. In a world of limited resources and intractable challenges, the importance of leveraging high-functioning, effective partnerships to make change is significant and something we’re proud to activate consistently in our work. 

The first step towards building these partnerships is setting a goal bigger than any one organization’s reach, and at a scale that can change the trajectory of a problem.  Our founder, Paul Allen, consistently dreamed at that level. For example, he asked us to uncover the plight of the Africa elephant, save all the world’s coral reefs, and bend the curve on opioid-related deaths in the US, among many other quests – not small things to tackle.


Once a bold vision is set, our next helpful step is to assemble a team of experts – internally and externally – to deeply understand the problem and design potential solutions. The key at this stage is to look for those people and organizations whose commitment to the vision is greater than their individual agendas. This can be a tall order when working with passionate, intelligent people. However, they can be easily identified by their willingness to consider and integrate multiple perspectives, hyper focus on results, and active listening practices. With the best collaborative minds around the table, the conversation can hone in on the most effective ways-in to solve a particular issue.

[Related: Engineering a Solution to Saving Coral Reefs From Space]

With a potential way-in in mind, our consideration then turns to execution and what capabilities, networks, and perspectives are needed to attack the problem. In the Vulcan Impact Team, our core competencies include technology development, scientific research, product development and impact management. When partnering, we consider complementary organizations and individuals around the world who can help make the strongest solution possible. 

Partnership In Action

Let’s take the Allen Coral Atlas for example. We’ve amassed a best-in-class team of:

  • Scientists (providing marine biology, ecology, and mapping expertise)

  • Technologists (designing and implementing algorithms, to see coral reefs from space)

  • NGOs (leading field verification, training and community engagement)

  • Private companies (sourcing satellite images)

We needed to bring all these different people and organizations together in order to deliver the first-ever, global mapping and monitoring system for the world’s coral reefs – something that none of the partners, including Vulcan, could have done on our own.

The strength of the Atlas partnership is grounded in deep trust and respect for each contributing member’s expertise and viewpoints. Healthy debates are desired and designed with the outcome being more resilient, robust decisions and confidence that the team is considering all possible known barriers or threats and drawing informed conclusions. We have agreements on when and how we’ll coordinate our activities and deliver our work. When differences of opinions get heated, an effective practice is to bring everyone back to the shared goal and our commitment to it above any one organization or person. Despite being a global team spread across five major cities from Washington D.C. to Townsville, Australia, we operate as a single, high-functioning unit of individuals dedicated to saving the world’s coral reefs.

Bringing It Back Home

Each problem we aim to solve requires profound consideration of the people we need at the table pulling in the same direction. This was the first in series of posts exploring how we identify, form, and utilize partnerships. Stay tuned to learn more about how we develop partnerships at various phases of a project and the types of partnerships we form.

With equal care and attention, we need to build the relationships and teams that give the world the highest likelihood of meaningful impact. Reflecting on how this method is embedded in our DNA, I’m reminded of one of Paul’s directives to us all: ‘As long as we work together – with urgency and determination – there are no limits to what we can achieve.’



Working to tackle the world's toughest problems