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Why relationships should matter more than transactions – a chat with Charlie Brown of Context Partners

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The greatest innovations come from the density of ideas, and the people connecting around it” – Charlie Brown, Context Partners

When you first meet Charlie Brown, the founder of Context Partners, a NE Portland-based design firm, you’re instantly drawn in by his passion and perspective for building successful organizations through the power of relationships, derived from watching his entrepreneur parents as he grew up in West Virginia, and spending 15 years working with social entrepreneurs all over the planet.

As Brown explains, “I was raised by parents who were very active in our local community and they often dragged me along to meetings. Sitting quietly in the corner I saw how change actually occurs. The world doesn’t change because of one person’s idea or effort—it happens through individuals working together towards a shared goal.”

“While it certainly took a number of years to come to the conclusion that our myth of the hero was more often than not just that, a myth, it sparked an interest about what makes organizations a success and change happen. Through an early career with a dot com, then spending years with social entrepreneurs around the world I saw the most successful organizations harnessed the power of their communities, their social networks, to make their mark on the world.”

Brown has a clear vision of how to use what he calls “community-centered design” to help build powerful relationships, communities and human networks for his clients, and started Context Partners purposefully in Portland in 2010, because it was a place that best reflected that vision, particularly in its unique spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

How success is defined for a client depends on the organization. Brown notes, “Success might be noted by increases in brand loyalty, membership or employee retention or innovations being sourced from new channels. But at the core will always be the ability to track the engagement of the client’s community directly to achieving business results or social impact. At the end of the day it is all about the relationships that are the difference between success and failure for an organization.”

I first met Brown a couple of months ago with the idea of doing a longer written story about Context Partners, but after my first 10 minutes with him I knew there was only one way we could present the rest of his story, his ideas, and his perspective and do them justice – we needed to do a video.

So, Mitch and I made a follow up visit and captured this interview with Brown, to continue our talks on a range of topics related to social movements and entrepreneurship, as well as a conversation about the state (and future) of the Portland/Oregon entrepreneurial ecosystem.

You can also find Context Partners on their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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Terry St. Marie

Terry "Starbucker" St. Marie, when he isn't working with Mitch & Rick on Built Oregon, writes on his own site, TerryStarbucker.com, and is also a business consultant, Director of Finance of PDX retailer/record label Tender Loving Empire, investor in the Oregon Angel Fund, chairman of the board of Social Ventures Portland, and a general man about town (and espresso bars)