Team of six people sitting on a couch

Partnerships Chat | Kyle Empringham | The Starfish Canada

July 5, 2021

OK, Kyle, to start with, please tell us a little bit about your background before The Starfish Canada

I'm a Canadian fellow that was born and raised in the small town of Aurora, Ontario. It was very suburban and there were lots of green lawns. It was  the Canadian-American dream in one sense. Urban sprawl was certainly a big part of  growing up. 

I grew up playing hockey on the streets and  knowing nature as the tree that was outside my front window. And as I started to grow up, as I started becoming more educated, going to university, and understanding different ways of living and being in the world, I began to recognize that the way I had grown up was actually quite a privileged one. I had a lot of opportunities afforded to me by the nature of where I lived and my family situation.I was a young, white male in a very white, affluent place. 

 It was the nature of learning  that led my co-founder, Sujane Kandasamy, and myself to run The Starfish Canada, recognizing that there was beauty in understanding the world around us. There's beauty in having different voices at the table and particularly having young people being a part of that solution as well.

That’s amazing. How did you get started on The Starfish Canada, what's the mission?

We started The Starfish Canada on the simple premise that we think that young people aren't just the leaders of tomorrow -  they're also the leaders of today.  Young people have fresh ideas and insights and innovations, and those are worth talking about. 

They're going to inherit the world that we have. It's best to bring in their ideas early and often into the decision making process so that we can make sure that their voices are included in how we create a greener world for people and the planet.

It started as a McMaster University class based project that Sujane and I started. We had decided what we wanted to do was that we were learning so many cool things about biodiversity and conservation, and biology. 

A lot of our thought process was, how do we talk to commerce students about this? How do we talk to nursing students about this? How do we bridge the divide or how do we break the divides and bridge people together?

So we started The Starfish Canada in 2010. It started predominantly as an online blog. We focused on how we break down concepts of environmentalism and science and communicate that to broader audiences. 

Over the course of our 10 years of working together, we've expanded our programming.  We offer educational workshops. We also celebrate young people in the environmental sector doing incredible work. And through all of that, we certainly learned how many incredible ideas and insights and innovations are in the mind of youth.

And that's why we do what we do. That's why we wake up every morning really excited for a new adventure.

The Starfish Canada YVR event group posing for photo
2018 The Starfish Canada YVR event

When we first connected on Founders Beta you mentioned that you look after partnerships at The Starfish Canada, that's really one of the things that we want to talk about today.  How did you start with partnerships at The Starfish Canada?  

I would say all along we've had partnerships and actually, funny enough, the way we started our workshops when we started doing educational workshops is that we partnered with a group called Let's Talk Science. They were in universities all across Canada. That's where we wanted to be. We wanted to be able to run workshops at universities. We knew that there was so much advantage of us working with their chapters wherever we could to make sure that we could get into schools and a few other places to make our work thrive.

However, I would say that our work in what I generally call partnerships has grown and expanded over the last two years or so. The nature of nonprofit work and charity work sometimes is that you have to be really scrappy at the start, do everything you can, find the connections and whatnot, and also just show off that you've got something unique and innovative to provide to the world. Actually, I think actually every business is similar.

I don't think it's just a nonprofit thing. In 2018, because of what we had done for about eight years at that point and the reputation we had built over time, we actually had people knocking on our door asking if they could partner with us, including family funders who wanted to give us six figures in order to do the work that we were doing. And so the nature of that is that we built a brand and a reputation that was known and was something that made people excited.

The nature of partnerships, of course, and the best partnerships, in my opinion, are the ones that are mutually beneficial, that it's not just about us getting funding in the door or whatever resource we're looking for, but that we're also providing some form of value to the people that we're connected with and that there's something mutual and reciprocal and resilient about the nature of the partnership. 

Can we drill down into that a little more, because I'm a big believer of that as well.  I hear a lot of concerns from startups about dealing with a larger partner.  They want to know how they can be a good match. How can they make it mutually beneficial?

You have to understand who you are as an organization and how to find common values between your organization or company and the other group. When you're able to do that, that's where you can find magic in a partnership. 

A good example is that there has been one partner that actually offered us about fifty thousand dollars and we turned it down because it wasn't going to work for us. And while the money could have been exactly what we needed,  the nature of how the stipulations that were on that money or the things that we needed to do because of it were not aligned with the values that we had as an organization.

So we actually had to tell someone, “no”, we will not take your money, despite the fact that it's looking really shiny and in front of us.

There's a lot of power in 'no'. Is there,  an example of one of the stipulations that you guys didn't like, that you were uncomfortable with, that you can share?

Yeah, it was about the ratio of where that money needed to be spent and not enough of it was on an operational standpoint (in a nonprofit, we call it unrestricted revenue). There was too much of that money that had to be allocated in a certain place. We knew as a growing organization, we needed to find ways to keep the lights on. So we said no because while that would help us run a program, that was not going to be great for the long run.

We need to make sure that we're doing the best for us as an organization. What I would say from that, actually, is that the people we were working with have now moved into a model that's predominantly called  “trust-based philanthropy”. So because of us telling them, no, they've actually moved to a funding model that actually is way more about unrestricted funding and giving good organizations the resources they need to thrive and not about what they, as a funder, need and want to provide.

I'm glad we've had that sort of influence. They've actually come back to us and we're continuing to work with them. The door didn't get shut. I think that's what a lot of people fear when they say no, that people are going to get really upset about it. If you do it with respect and kindness and candor, I don't think that's actually what happens. I think you can navigate through difficult conversations and get to the other side in a really beneficial way.

I think a lot of times people forget that. ‘No’ doesn't mean “no forever”. No just means “no for now” or “no, not this particular version of the offer”, right?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

In the beginning, you partnered with Let's Talk Science. Can you remember who the second partner was and how you got started with that? Was that somebody that you went looking for or was that already also an existing relationship?

Well, we've had a lot of partnerships over the years, so we had Let's Talk Science and we understood where the benefit would be from that. I probably could mention numerous little partners along the way between there and the one I mentioned where we actually said no to them. 

But I think that the nature of it is that we started doing partnerships as a way of thinking through how we expand ourselves and our nonprofit. However, we learned along the way how to vet them a little bit better.

With every partnership, of course, everyone wants to be able to tout that they are able to mutually expand your business or your nonprofit or that there's potential in ABCD. We realized that while we want to be a community connector and certainly support groups, there's different ways to support them. Not everything needs to be this partnership that's super linked and tied together in order to just do good work for someone. 

So when we recognized that we were able to be a little bit more defiant on saying yes or no or just understanding when to do that. I think that that's a piece that sometimes feels like wejust want to be a community that's happy and connected and partnered all together, which I think is great but sometimes if it can't serve you well, then you need to be able to assess that and  respectfully bow out.

So you hit on an interesting point that, you know, not all partnerships need to be like a marriage. They don't need to be fully integrated.  I often encourage people that are first getting into partnerships to start small. If you work well together then come back and try something bigger.

I would definitely recommend starting small and where you can and where it feels appropriate, and that's what we did for a long time, because that's where our brand was and that's what made sense and so that's what we did. 

I would say that a big piece of that is, again, understanding your values, understanding theirs and where they align, and then when you start small, still having like metrics of success, what is it going to make this feel really good for you in three months even or four months or whatever the time frame is?

But being specific is a form of kindness because it's a form of clarity. So if you're able to say, OK, in three months, what we want to do is we want to run this social media contest. We're hoping for this many engagements, or reach, whatever metric you want to use and then being able to report back out on that. Even if it's not exactly what you would hope for. 

Let everyone know whether this thing was beneficial or not. And you can add qualitative into the quantitative. It doesn't all have to be about numbers. It can be about perception and what everyone in the group felt about how that went and how you work together. There's a lot of different metrics of a good partnership that you can add in here. I think sometimes it gets missed, especially in nonprofits, because we want to start small.

We don't like how that conversation about what metrics look like or what success looks like. And that's equally important on the first step as it is, when you ask them for one hundred thousand dollars down the line, you need to be able to point to why you were successful and I think sometimes because we start small, we miss that step.

Kyle Empringham speaking at event while sitting on couch
Kyle doing his thing for The Starfish Canada

I think that's a really good point. I see a lot of partnerships where people do the campaign, and then there's no follow up at the end, particularly if somebody feels it wasn't a success.
I think the opportunity to learn from each campaign is so important,  particularly if you're just starting out with partnership marketing or starting with a new partner.

Yeah, exactly, I think that those pieces are so important and I think and in my brain, it would be hard for me to figure out the next step with a partner if I didn't know how they felt about the first step. 

And it would be a little bit ignorant or a lot of assumptions would be made in order to figure out how to move forward. And partnerships, whether we want to admit it sometimes or not, are really some form of a sales process. 

The best sales people will tell you that it's about discovery. It's way more about asking questions and understanding someone's perspective than it is about putting something templated in front of them and seeing how it resonates. And so and especially in a partnership oriented space, the more you can know about them, the better you will do putting something in front of them that's going to make sense for them.

Do you have a formal partnership program or do you take them as they come? I'm guessing in the beginning you didn't but at this stage, now you've been doing it for a while, have you formalized the process?

We're building out a semi structured process at this point, and there's some partnerships that we're currently building, I'm under an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) so I can't talk specifically about all the details, but we have we have some that are a little bit more about leaning into what they're looking for and identifying their gaps and how some of our programming could solve that. 

We’re lucky enough to be working with some major Canadian brands and because of that and because of the nature of what we're doing, we want to be specific enough to be able to meet a deliverable that's quite unique to their situation.

But there are spaces where people come in and ask for presenters, for our speakers bureau or to run workshops with us. We have a rough template of what that looks like.  we create the starting point and then it kind of evolves based on need. Because of that, I think what happens is most people come back to usafter a while, because they see how we built an intentional program for them, they don't see this as something they bought off the shelf.

That makes a lot of sense.  So, is there one particularly big or uncomfortable failure that you can talk about and then what you learned from that?

 One of our biggest failures is that for a long time, we wanted to be (and we still want to be) community driven.

 In terms of how we diversify revenue as an organization, we always wanted to make sure that our revenue comes from people. We wanted to always have a really strong grassroots game and to make sure that that's how we get our money in. But in reality, the nature of that is that we also work with youth. And so the people who are donating are not the people who receive our programs.

There are a few other layers of complication in there. So we held on for that for too long. And I think that was actually a failure of ours over time. That's why, over the last couple of years, we have realized that we  need to pivot towards towards partnerships as a way of being strategic in the work that we do, recognizing that there are a lot of philanthropists and organizations and people that want to do right by the young people that are in our lives.

That's a space where we can step in and we have genuine success and impact. Pivoting to partnerships and being genuine in that space and being intentional with how we navigate through partnerships has been the success that came from the failure of doing something for too long.

Fantastic. Is there a favourite partnership or a favorite campaign?

You know, there's one that's coming that I'm happy to talk about, and it's one of my favorites that we've done so far. We're excited that there's the Real Estate Foundation in British Columbia, the Victoria Foundation, and a development company Aryze Developments (that actually builds housing) and the City of Victoria itself all partnered together to figure out how to build a timber-based playground  instead of metal structures that we normally are accustomed to.

It's going to be all wood-based. We're also going to engage youth in the process early in order to ask what sort of things they would like to see in a new, innovative playground, hoping that as a part of that is that they feel like they were bought into the design of the playground before it's even built and when it's built, it'll be one of their favorite places to be.

That's awesome. Will be a great outcome.

Yeah, we're very excited.

It's a collaboration in partnership with a lot of different people and places, and it is a bit of an unlikely collaboration. Most of the time an environmental nonprofit doesn't partner with a housing developer, but some of those unlikely pieces are what make really interesting projects. 

Being unafraid to do that is something that's really hard, especially as an environmental anything. You don't want to greenwash. You want to be super intentional and have values aligned.

But we found a way to do that. And because of that, I'm really excited about the opportunity that's going to come for the city and for us to be able to have a hand in a structure that is environmental and green and going to stand the test of time too.

I love partnerships that aren't immediately obvious. You know, when people get creative and bring together different different resources and organizations. 

With your experience now, do you have any advice about how to get started with partnerships?

I would say overall, just don't be afraid to dive in. I think sometimes we have this expectation that because we're building a partnership and there's a power dynamic or a lot of other things that can surface for people that we need to be perfect, that everything we do needs to be precise like a fine tooth comb. 

The nature of a good partnership is that you are mutually working together well. So if you think that if you go in and you think you need to have the 30 slides in the slide deck and you need to know every single number and all that, there's something that you certainly should do to make sure that you're educated about your business and your nonprofit, but you don't you don't need everything fine tuned and perfect in order to to build a genuinely collaborative partnership. 

So, my recommendation is always to dive in and to ask great questions if you can find a way to be a good coach and question asker. That brings people into conversation.  You can probably do very well and build partnerships that withstand the test of time.

That's really amazing.  Just to finish up, are there any of your partners you want to give a shout out to right now? 

Yeah, that's a great question, and I hadn't thought of that piece particularly, but there certainly are two main ones that I would certainly shout out I'm doing at the risk of missing others. 

But I think that these two have definitely shown us what it means to be a trust based partner. 

One is called the Lawson Foundation. They're based out of Toronto, Ontario, and they've been working with us to just do really good work and to make sure that we can celebrate young environmental leaders all across Canada and really appreciate them.

And similarly, Arc'teryx is an outdoor retail company.

Oh, that’s cool. I really love Arc’teryx.  I'm a rock climber and hiker and a big fan of their brand and the work they do.

They're fantastic and they are also leaning into trust based philanthropy. They're seeing what they would like to see in the world and finding organizations that align well with them. And because of that, I'm just always so impressed by how they show up in conversation and they're asking about how they can be of service rather than what their ROI can look like. And I think that those are the sort of funders that are actually going to do really well over the next little while.

I think a lot of places can probably take a note from those two, about how to navigate through partnerships with deep intention.

Thanks so much for your time Kyle, I really enjoyed the chat and love what you guys are doing.

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Partners mentioned: Arc'teryx and Lawson Foundation

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