All posts by Anne Whatley

Our Questions for 2016

Network Impact is looking forward to 2016! As a team, we’ll be exploring new themes as well as deepening our work in some key practice areas. Here are a few questions we’ll be investigating in the coming year…

In what contexts are online communities most useful to networks?
What are best practices for creating and managing online communities that enhance network connectivity, alignment and action?

For several years we’ve been learning from practitioners about challenges and successes in this area. We’ve also developed some resources for tracking the effects of digital platform use on individuals, their organizations and the communities in which they work. (You can read more about these projects: Civic Tech Assessment Guide and Community Commons.) We are now compiling our top lessons learned and will have a blog post on the topic early this year.

How can funders track and improve the network impact of their efforts to connect people at convenings and retreats as well as in online environments that bring diverse groups into contact with one another? 
Over the last year, we’ve fielded an avalanche of questions about social impact networks (of grantees, investees, fellows, awardees) that grantmakers hope to catalyze by creating environments in which people with related interests can connect. Our guest post for Philantopic discusses what we learned from a social network analysis of the Durfee Foundation’s Stanton Fellowship. This year, we’ll be looking at strategies including human-centered design that aim to boost positive network outcomes in this area. We’ll also be exploring frameworks and tools for evaluating these “mass-weaving” efforts focusing on the value they produce for individuals, organizations and at the field level.

As big data, and even “medium data” become ubiquitous, who is successfully leveraging data and technology for social change and how are they doing it?
In our work with Kaiser Permanente and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation,  we spoke with dozens of grantmakers, innovators and change agents in multiple sectors to find out how funders can catalyze and spread the use of data and technology to advance social change. What we found is that most organizations, including funders, are struggling to use data and technology well. It will take a concerted effort, and strategic investment, to bring the social sector up to speed. In the coming year, we’ll be looking more closely at network initiatives in this domain such as strategies for connecting technologists to nonprofits, to each other and to each other’s open source projects.

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Technology Tools Presentation with Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit

In early December 2015, Senior Consultant, Anne Whatley, partnered with Tyler Norris, VP of Total Health at Kaiser Permanenete to share findings from recent research on the use of technology tools for data mapping, analysis, visualization, and collaboration at The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at the University of California, Berkeley.  Norris provides an overview of how Kaiser Permanente as an organization is using data and technology tools and Network Impact’s Whatley then highlights patterns and opportunities in the social sector as a whole.

The recording can be found on the CITRIS Youtube channel.

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Loose Ties + Strong Trust = Innovation in Los Angeles

This is a re-post, originally published October 17, 2015 on Philantopic, a blog of opinion and commentary at Philanthropy News Digest.  You can view the original post here.

In 2008, Lisa Watson was the executive director of the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), an organization dedicated to meeting the needs of women on Los Angeles’ Skid Row hoping to overcome poverty and homelessness. That year, Lisa received a Stanton Fellowship to investigate the viability of a co-located social enterprise retail store that would offer workforce training to homeless women and generate revenues for the center. Revenues would be used to subsidize housing and supportive services in the pricey Los Angeles real estate market.

For the past ten years the Durfee Foundation has awarded a select number of Stanton Fellowships to social change leaders in Los Angeles with the aim of fostering innovative solutions to some of the city’s most intractable problems. Lisa’s project became a reality in 2011 with the opening of MADE by DWC, a gift boutique and café that offers organic coffee and food along with one-of-a-kind vintage and contemporary women’s clothing, accessories, household accents, and their signature handMADE product line. One hundred percent of the proceeds support the residents of the Downtown Women’s Center, providing the kind of earned revenue that is a vital component of long-term sustainability for most nonprofits.

Cross-Disciplinary Connections

Prior to the fellowship, Lisa had met a handful of other Stanton alumni, all in the housing/homelessness space. Over the course of her fellowship, however, she expanded her connections to include Stanton fellows with expertise in urban planning, health, education, the environment, and economic development, as well as contacts in the L.A. Mayor’s Office. The interactions with other fellows significantly affected her project’s design as well as its resulting success. “By bringing together smart people from various disciplines in Los Angeles,” she notes, “problems can be viewed through various prisms rather than through a telescope. Solutions and strategies are developed by looking more richly at the problem from various perspectives and disciplines.”

The Stanton Fellowship provides funds over two years for each fellow to think deeply about a specific challenge related to their work and to tease out solutions that will improve life in Los Angeles. The Durfee Foundation deliberately encourages connecting and knowledge sharing among fellows as a way to foster the cross-fertilization of ideas that might lead to new approaches. Stanton Fellows are intentionally selected to represent a wide-ranging spectrum of issues and sectors, with fellows coming from government and social enterprise as well as nonprofits. Key elements of the program include opening and concluding fellowship retreats that overlap with the next/prior cohort of fellows; quarterly get-togethers hosted by a fellow who provides a tour of the issue they are tackling and includes time for fellows to update the group on their projects; and foundation staff matching fellows with program alumni mentors. In addition, every other year the foundation hosts a retreat to which all alumni of the program as well as current fellows are invited.

Enhanced Peripheral Vision

In order to better understand the network dimension of the program, the Durfee Foundation asked Network Impact to assess the role that ties among Stanton Fellows play in contributing to the program’s goals. To that end, in the fall of 2014 we surveyed current fellows and alumni, and supplemented that work with focus-group interviews and Social Network analysis (SNA) to assess the nature of the connections among fellows over time. What we found has implications for funders who are supporting innovation in the social sector, particularly investors in fellowship or leadership development programs who are curious about the wider impact of these initiatives.

The Strength of Loose Ties

“I can ask any Stanton person for their support, and I have done so. Some I only see once a year and that’s fine….I know who to call if I need something.”

It is not uncommon for fellowship programs to cultivate close, trusting relationships among participants as a way to promote more alignment and coordination among participants. For example, bonds that have been deliberately fostered among community leaders who participate in the Barr Fellows Program in Boston have led to increased collaboration among leading nonprofit organizations in that city. In contrast, a social network analysis of the ties among Stanton fellows reveals a different pattern. In the Stanton case, loose ties among fellows resulting in an exchange of “information that leads to new thinking or framing” are more common (see the maps below). Our mapping also shows that participation in the program increases each fellow’s reach, creating pathways to advice and information from a variety of nonprofit leaders. The majority of connections among fellows are not regular, close, or personal. Instead, the overall effect is one of improved “peripheral vision.” With a view to engaging in transformational activity beyond their own “silos,” nonprofit leaders working on different issues can adopt lessons from other settings and better align their plans of action. Our observations offer a different take on the Strength of Weak Ties thesis put forward by Marc Granovetter. Moreover, research on networks suggests that high levels of trust in networks typically coincide with strong, often personal, bonds among members. In the Stanton network, fellows tend to seek advice from peers as trusted sources, not on the basis of strong personal ties.

Below are maps of connections that “provided information that led to new thinking or framing that has been useful in my work” before the Stanton Fellowship, and after. This type of connection saw a 308 percent increase compared to the intensity of connections before the start of the fellowship period.

DurfeeBeforeAfterNetworkMaps

A Culture of Trust

“I feel free to pick up the phone and call anybody who was a Stanton Fellow, because it’s sort of a common culture that we all share, and it’s a very different level of trust and access….”

Like other social changemakers, one of the things that Stanton fellows value most highly is their access to trusted information from peers. As in most networks, trust lowers transaction costs for peer exchange; in the case of the Stanton fellowship, this network “glue” is the product of a shared set of understandings that the Durfee Foundation fosters between itself and Stanton fellows and among the fellows themselves. As one fellow explained: “We refer to it as a ‘fellowship’, and that is a particularly relevant word for this experience. I think we all feel very strongly that this is a community that matters deeply and has added immensely to our lives, personally and professionally….Stanton calls are always taken and returned, and there is a warmth and common bond that immediately eases whatever else is happening in the day.”

Reflecting on how this culture of trust has been created and maintained, fellows repeatedly cited the efforts of Durfee Foundation staff to encourage them to take risks. One alumnus of the program explained, “They have created this culture that is incredibly healthy and vibrant and encouraging….They invite you to push the envelope and are not fearful of what other foundations might perceive as failure, which is a healthy environment in which to experiment.”

Equally important is fellows’ confidence in the foundation’s capacity to select candidates whose motivations are aligned with theirs: the desire to transform conditions in Los Angeles for the better and to help the most vulnerable in the city. As one fellow observed, “The staff set the standard for how much we all connect. That’s part of the leadership everyone trusts so much.” Another reflected: “I think my comfort harks back to the rigor and savvy with which the selection takes place. It does say something to me about who is in that group of people, that I can trust them, at least enough to reach out to them.” In other words, the mere fact of being selected as a fellow inspires confidence and trust.

Reflecting on her time as a Stanton Fellow, Lisa describes her experience of getting beyond traditional silos in an environment of loose ties but strong trust. “The whole idea of trying to change a city we all care about is a real connector point. It taught me to love L.A. more, and I now feel more a part of it. I was exposed to all these different things that were totally out of my world and experience. As a result, I am involved and engaged in the city in new ways, with different people than I would have been before I was selected to be a fellow.”

Lisa’s project evolved based on her fertile exchanges with other Stanton Fellows and has continued to grow, with more than fifty of the women involved in the training now gainfully employed, and MADE by DWC products now being sold online and in stores in Los Angeles, providing much-needed funds to advance the full spectrum of DWC programs. Our hope is that others looking to nurture innovative social change efforts will look at how their current activities to connect diverse leaders present opportunities to increase the visibility of their grantees’ efforts and will begin to track the value created through those network connections.

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Project profile: Leveraging technology for healthier, more sustainable and more equitable communities

Network Impact is working with Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit Division and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to conduct a scan of current and emerging technologies that provide access to population health data and collaboration supports for use by funders and others working to promote healthy,  equitable and sustainable communities. We surveyed funders in a range of organizations to identify the best-in-class tools they are using and are conducting interviews with leading innovators and practitioners. The scan will identify gaps, needs and opportunities to advance the field.

You can download a presentation summary of our findings and see an interactive visualization.  We are also presenting at the Foundation Center Technology Affinity Group conference on November 11th, 2015 in Los Angeles and the Community Indicators Consortium Conference on November 9th, 2015 in Austin, TX.

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Investing in Networks Grows Impact

We often hear grantmakers talk about leveraging dollars but rarely get to see year-to-year data showing a funder’s investment over time with the additional resources they attract to an issue. The Garfield Foundation agreed to let us review their investments in the RE-AMP network over the last ten years so we could take a closer look at a specific case. Our analysis shows that even foundations with a modest corpus can leverage their charitable dollars many times over by investing in networks. Our latest blog post on this topic is featured in The Stanford Social Innovation Review .

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Network Evaluation Guide

Developed with the Center for Evaluation Innovation this two-part guide to network evaluation includes a brief that outlines the frameworks, approaches and tools to address practical questions about designing and funding network evaluations and aCasebook that provides profiles of nine evaluations.

Download at: www.networkimpact.org/networkevaluation

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Civic Tech: How to Measure Success

The civic tech field has expanded so widely in recent years, it’s hard to think of a major city or an area of civic life that these technologies don’t touch. In this dynamic environment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been a field leader, investing over $25 million since 2010 in projects ranging from neighborhood forums, to civic crowdfunding platforms, to efforts that promote government innovation. For eighteen months, Network Impact worked with Knight Foundation grantees and other civic tech leaders to find out how they measure success, focusing on tools they’re using to track platform performance and assessment challenges they face along the way.

We started by identifying key outcomes related to these common civic tech objectives and gathered case examples of assessments from the field:

  • Build place-based social capital
  • Increase civic engagement
  • Promote deliberative democracy
  • Support open governance
  • Foster inclusion and diversity

Our work also led us to think about tracking the performance of a platform through its lifecycle – recognizing that assessment priorities vary with stage of development, from early testing of a minimum viable product to later-stage scaling of a tested concept.

The result of this research: two guides to evaluating civic tech that summarize assessment best practices, including leading methodologies and metrics that can help innovators monitor progress towards their goals and evaluate the impact of their efforts. Some of these assessment best practices focus on connections between users, both online and off-line, with an important network dimension.

Download the Guides:

Assessing Civic Tech: Case Studies and Resources for Tracking Outcomes is a publication of the Knight Foundation with Network Impact that focuses on measuring the impact of civic tech platforms on people, places, and processes.

How To Measure Success: A Practical Guide to Answering Common Civic Tech Assessment Questions is a Network Impact publication that offers examples and advice for monitoring a platform’s ongoing performance using tools and approaches that are effective and practical.

We have also created  Additional Tools and Resources pages that can be updated. Please send us suggestions for links to include.

Additionally, the Knight Foundation wrote up their key lessons from investing in civic tech that are also worth a read.

How  Code for America is using the Assessing Civic Tech guide

The release of this guide is coming at the right time. Demonstrations of what is possible are up in running in communities of every size across the United States. Now we need to find out not only what works, but what works best over time.

At Code for America, the guide will be particularly helpful for Fellowship teams and volunteer Brigades who are thinking about the questions they need to ask and the changes in attitudes they need to measure to assess progress towards increasing civic engagement and open governance. The process and case studies documented in this guide will be useful for structuring these assessments.

At Code for America, we believe that it is critically important to identify the residents, community groups, or government staff who will be using the particular public service program or benefit, then work with them early in the assessment design process. This guide provides important examples of how to frame an evaluation to include and work with intended beneficiaries. It offers sample questions and resources that will be very helpful to organizations and individuals who are beginning to explore how they can include measures of civic engagement and changing attitudes in their assessment of their efforts.

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Network Tool: Network Health Scorecard


Regular check ups can help network builders track progress and decide what the network needs next. The Network Health Scorecard provides a quick series of questions that can yield a useful assessment of the health of your network - diagnosing strengths and areas for growth.

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