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Portland Business Journal profile

May 28, 2014

Strategies: Context Partners helps companies harness the power of their networks

Adam Worcester, Contributing writer
Originally posted March 28, 2014
Click to view the original post at the Portland Business Journal

When Erin Dobson wanted to reshape the website for Vulcan Inc., she turned to Context Partners, a Portland-based company that bills itself as a “social innovation design firm.”

Founded by Microsoft co-founder and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, Vulcan is an investment and project management firm with a wide-ranging portfolio that encompasses topics from space travel to global citizenship.

Dobson, who at the time was Vulcan’s senior director of corporate communications and government affairs (she no longer works for Vulcan), was tasked with reframing the company’s messaging in a storytelling format.

She discovered that employees had compelling stories to tell and their tales created the collective message of the business and the brand.

It’s a process called community centered design, and it is the basis of Context Partners’ business. It works by harnessing the critical thinking of an organization’s employees, customers, fans, clients and other stakeholders to spark innovation, build brand awareness, solve problems and expand reach.

The technique has resonated with not only Vulcan, but other high-profile clients including the Knight Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and Ecotrust.
“Networks are the key to business survival,” said Context Partners CEO and founder Charlie Brown. “We see that this is where the world is headed.”

Outsourcing innovation

Brown, 36, applies techniques of social entrepreneurship that he learned as executive director of Changemakers, where he developed an international online community of 100,000 “innovators” that has generated more than $50 million in philanthropic funding. He founded Context Partners four years ago in Virginia, then chose to headquarter the firm in Portland after a nationwide search. There are 17 employees in the Portland office on Northeast Alberta Street; five more in a Washington, D.C., branch; and one in a third outlet in Brussels.

So far business has been brisk. Though he declined to reveal figures, Brown said third-year revenue is up 30 percent over the second year and 75 percent over year one. He projects 15 percent growth in 2014, with increasing profit margins.

Context Partners charges an upfront fee to help companies build networks among their “communities,” which can include members and employees, customers and fans. The theory is this will improve productivity, expand the customer base, increase brand loyalty, foster innovation and offer resilience.

“Innovation comes from the fringes. It’s not at the core of a business,” Brown said. “We’re outsourcing innovation to some degree.”

Tailor made

The crew at Context Partners has helped the Packard Foundation develop network-based models to source new ideas for grant making. In the past, the foundation might have commissioned a yearlong study.

It helped pharmaceutical giant Lilly develop a program that makes data from clinical trials accessible to networks of scientists, nonprofits and academics.

For the Knight Foundation, Context Partners helped create a membership network called Black Male Engagement. The network evolved into essentially a new organization that funds small projects within black communities to build male leadership.

“Everybody talks about networks these days, but the reality is, most networks are somewhat meaningless. They’re not really doing anything,” said Kristen Sheeran, vice president of knowledge systems at Ecotrust. “Context Partners showed us how we can maximize networking to achieve greater impact. It’s transformational. It will change the way social organizations do business.”

Dobson said unlike other firms she’s worked with, Context Partners tailored its work to her organization.

“They work at getting at the root of what you’re trying to solve for,” she said. “One thing companies are looking for is more of a partnership and less of a transactional relationship. Nothing is more frustrating than having senior-level executives come in and sell their business, then never seeing them again.”

Context Partners spent more than six months at Vulcan, interviewing employees and dissecting the business. In the end, the company helped Dobson develop the content messaging for websites for Vulcan and the Allen Family Foundation that encapsulated employee stories to tell a bigger story to a broader audience.

Brown said his firm is strengthening its methodology this year as it builds a network of its own. It’s also designing software tools that enable clients to manage the networks Context Partners helps them create.

“There is a growing number of individuals and groups that are really connecting into the idea of community and networks. It is resonating,” Brown said. “Most successful companies in the world see that this is their pathway to success. It requires a new way of looking at your organization.”

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