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Spotlight on ACN Partnerships
By Liz Duffrin, ACN member
ACN members Donna Lake and Ellen Shepard collaborated on a strategic planning and communications project for a food pantry.
Donna Larkin Lake, a communications strategist, didn’t know a single ACN member when she arrived at the annual meeting in June 2018. But over the breakfast buffet, she had a “wonderful conversation” with Ellen Shepard, CEO of Community Allies, who works with community and economic development groups. They exchanged cards.
Several months later, Shepard contacted her with a project that was a perfect fit for both. Shepard would lead strategic planning for a food pantry, while Lake, former communications director for Northern Illinois Food Bank and Greater Chicago Food Depository, would craft messaging for the plan, and train the board of directors to carry out a communications strategy.
“I show up at the ACN meeting not knowing anyone, and a few months later end up having this fabulous partnership that benefitted my business and my learning,” said Lake, president of Larkin Lake Strategic Communications.
Shepard was also surprised at their fortuitous meeting, acknowledging that she is “not a natural networker, so I tend to go to these events and think, ‘I met people but nothing came of it.’ But this partnership was a reminder to me that the seeds you sow could bear fruit later—someone you meet today may be someone you can call on down the road.”
The two consultants still didn’t know each other well when they began working together in the fall of 2018. “The contract was in my name, so there was a little fear: how confident can I be turning stuff over to Donna?” Shepard recalled. “But I felt comfortable quickly.”
The collaboration turned out to be even more successful than either had anticipated. Lake offered to take notes in two planning sessions but also lent her expertise to the discussion. “She knew some questions to ask and what might be missing,” Shepard said. “Having another consultant in the room who knew the food pantry world was great for me.”
Between sessions, Shepard said she often relied on Lake as a thought partner. “‘Let me say this out loud and see if it makes sense.’ And we talked through it in detail. What I was able to provide the client was much stronger with Donna’s input.”
Including Lake in planning sessions also turned out to be critical to the later success of the communication effort. “Ellen could have completed the strategic plan with the board and handed me the report and asked me to craft messages from that,” said Lake, “but I wouldn’t have understood firsthand the passion that was coming from the board and why the particular strategies they wanted to move forward with were important to the organization.”
In the meetings, Lake said that she also learned from watching Shepard lead the group so skillfully—keeping the pace and focus while drawing out the quieter members and pausing to let ideas percolate. “Having been a spokesperson for nonprofits, I sometimes feel the need to fill the silence. Watching Ellen in action has made me a better listener, which will help me serve my clients better.”
Their advice to other consultants: “There are a lot of talented people in Chicago—get out and get to know them,” said Lake. “There are people out there who can help you, but it’s about networking to establish those relationships.”
Collaboration “made both of our businesses stronger,” she added, “and helped us serve our clients better. I think that together, we’re stronger.”
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