With support from the Knight Foundation through the Knight Community Information Challenge, community foundation leaders and their partners around the country are working to create more robust local information “ecosystems.” It was our privilege to get into the field to see what each of the four community foundations featured in the case studies is doing to promote information healthy communities.
Our eye for ethnographic detail helped to surface some of the real-life stories at the center of these efforts. Here is incontrovertible evidence that accessible, reliable and relevant news and information can enhance civic life and spark community change. Of course, we were particularly alert to the network building dimension in all of this. In addition to the local specifics about news and information, the cases also detail some basic network strategies that are relevant to any social change effort: how to create connections that open information pathways so that people can align and act. Which case most closely maps the challenges you face in your social change work? Any insights here that you might take forward?
When you’re evaluating a network, what are you looking for?
We recently submitted an evaluation proposal for a 7-year old network with more than 120 organizations spread across more than a half-dozen states. Without knowing much about the network we had to describe what we’d be evaluating, our analytic framework. It had 12 components, many of them specifically about a network, rather than an organization. It’s a framework we’d apply for assessing the condition and performance of any network.
Purpose: What is the network’s purpose? Is it being fulfilled? Has it changed over time? What other purposes are emergent among network members?
Value Propositions: What are the reasons that members participate in the network? Which reasons are most important to the members? How well do members feel their value propositions are being fulfilled by participating in the network?
Membership & Engagement: Who has been attracted to the network and who hasn’t that it would be desirable to have? What are the types of engagement in the network and to what degree do members engage in the network? Are the network’s rules/incentives for member engagement effective? Are there barriers that prevent/reduce member engagement?
Network Connectivity: What are the relationships among members? What level of reciprocity and trust has been built? What is being transacted between members? How has member connectivity evolved over time? What is the connectivity “shape” of the network (different patterns of connectivity—e.g., super hubs; multiple hubs; clusters) and how does the shape enable or block network efficiency and effectiveness?
Network Alignment: How well are network members aligned around ideas, goals, strategies, standards, and other guideposts? To what extent does alignment in the network influence members’ actions?
Network Production: To what extent has the network’s connectivity and alignment created conditions for collaboration/co-production by network members of, for instance, usable knowledge, policy change, services, or innovations. How well do network production processes function?
Other Network Capabilities: Which other network capabilities (e.g., network reach and resilience) matter to the network’s health—and what is their condition?
Governance: Does the network’s structure for decision-making enable members? Is it efficient and effective? Does it promote member confidence in and loyalty toward the network? What are the network’s monitoring and feedback loops and how well are they being used? What is the network’s resonance to members’ interests/actions? What is its adaptive capacity?
Business Model: What is the value chain within the markets and other contexts within which the network operates? What products and services—value creation– does the network offer? What is the network’s business model—revenues and costs—and how will it be sustained?
Operations: How well does the network enable members to benefit from the network through coordination of and communications among members, access to shared resources, working group leadership, and peer-to-peer exchange and learning? What staffing, mechanisms, and resources are in place? Which members do/don’t use them?
Strategic Communications: How is the network positioned with external audiences/stakeholders to achieve its goals? In what ways can the network’s external connections, capacities, and brand be leveraged for greater impact or to attract more resources?
Impacts: What measurable impact is the network having in achieving its purpose and goals? What impact is participating in the network having on the way members think and act? How can the network effectively measure its impact on a continuing basis—and use the information for improving its performance?
For social change, it’s not weak tie vs. strong tie networks, it’s both–and digital tools can make a difference.
Malcom Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “Small Change,” generated immediate buzz among members of the Network Building Community of Practice that the Barr Foundation, the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Network Impact have helped to convene in Boston. In these exchanges, you will find no shortage of arguments that challenge Gladwell’s assertion : “…the revolution will not be tweeted.” No shortage either of examples that qualify Gladwell’s equation: digital = weak ties = ineffective social movement.
The examples are important because they show how social change objectives are often met by activating multiple network strategies at the same time or over time. Digital tools may serve some parts of the work more effectively – but, in our view, that can hardly be decided before the fact.
In our work with the Massachusetts Inter-Agency Council for Housing and Homelessness, we see advocates reaching out through weak ties for new insights and ideas about “housing first” strategies and working in close knit clusters to develop particular interventions (e.g., around prevention, diversion and rapid –re-housing). In our work with rural advocacy networks, we see and promote points of intersection between bounded issue- or place-based rural nets and the open and emergent networks of rural advocates that have a cross- sectoral or national scope. Finally, we see lots of evidence that effective policy efforts link policy wonks and strategists in bounded networks to activists in large unbounded networks and that digital tools have a place in all of it (from NING to Facebook).
One of the ways that we prompt conversations about what tools may be suited to what purpose is by drawing a simple graph: four quadrants; “online” and “off line” are poles on the x-axis; “strong ties” and “weak ties” are poles on the y-axis. When you start to locate effective network-based social change initiatives on the graph, you’ll find that it’s a mix. Very few networks we work with (or can think of) are concentrated at a single pole.
Even donors who get why funding networks makes sense have concerns about the specifics.
The good news is that philanthropy is increasingly aware of the changing landscape in which they make investment decisions and is adopting strategies for increasing impact that include “activating networks.”
From the Monitor Institute’s recent (and excellent) report, “What’s Next for Philanthropy”
Simply stated, philanthropists operate today in a stressful, rapidly evolving, networked, and interdependent world. Although the individual grant is the typical unit of analysis for most foundations, the success of any grant or organization is rarely sufficient to move the needle on a complex problem. We have all felt the irony when successful programs are lauded while the system they aspire to change continues to fail. Funders are well positioned to support connectivity and to coordinate and knit together the pieces of a network of activity that can have impacts far beyond the success of any one grant, grantee, or donor. And advances in network theory and practice now allow funders to be much more deliberate about supporting and participating in networks and in thinking about how the collective impact of a coordinated portfolio of grants can produce more significant change.
Some foundations are getting smart about funding networks and are communicating lessons learned to the wider philanthropic community (among them: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Packard Foundation, and the Barr Foundation.
Still, many perceived challenges remain. Typical donor concerns – reasons donors may be hesitant to fund network efforts- include uncertainty about fiscal arrangements and accountability; the upfront investments needed for network development; and issues related to network operations and evaluation.
Typical Funder Concern: Who gets and manages the money?
What This Is About: Donors may only be permitted to fund nonprofits which qualify under regulations of the United States Internal Revenue Service.
Possible ways to address this concern: This is not necessarily a reason for a network to form a 501c3. But it is a reason to select a qualified fiscal agent with a track record of managing foundation grants.
Typical Funder Concern:Who is accountable for results?
What is this about: Networks are perceived to be more flexible and fluid than most organizations. Donors wonder how networks who will account for emergent decisions and actions
Possible ways to address this concern: In addition to educating funders about the advantages of network adaptation, networks may wish to prepare and share MOUs as well as network plans and budgets
Typical Funder Concern:Up front time and resources
What is this about: Creating a firm basis for effective network action may require considerable investments of time and money. It is not easy for donors to make long term flexible commitments in a results-oriented world.
Possible ways to address this concern: In addition to educating funders about network developmental cycles, members may wish to pursue some activities that yield quick tangible results.
Typical Funder Concern: New skills needed
What is this about: The set of skills that support development of networks, such as network weaving, are quite different from those for developing organizations.
Possible ways to address this concern: Sources now exist that describe the fundamentals of effective network practice. Networks can also offer examples from their own experience.
Typical Funder Concern:Knowledge capture systems
What is this about: Funders want to learn from their experience supporting networks but may not know themselves what to look for. They wonder if the knowledge capture systems that a network employs will surface lessons learned that are transferable to other networks.
Possible ways to address this concern: One way to address this concern is to develop robust knowledge capture systems (see below: How to evaluate)
Typical Funder Concern: How to evaluate
What is this about: Some donors may not support networks (or support networks at higher levels) because they believe it is difficult to measure a network’s impact.
Possible ways to address this concern: Ways to assess a network’s impact and evolution include network mapping, network health monitoring and other specialized network evaluation approaches.
Networks, like organizations, wrestle continually with the question of how to keep going. But networks, by their very nature, require different kinds of care and feeding and are presented with unique financial sustainability challenges.
If you are a network with social change mission, your principal resources are likely to come from a combination of sources, including: operating grants, member fees, project fund raising, earned income and/or in- kind contributions. Here’s a description of each source:
Source: Operating Grants
What this is: Grants from donors to cover network operating costs (e.g., coordination, communications, F2F meetings )
When & Why: Funders who play a role in convening a network may underwrite the network’s operating costs for an initial period. But longer term donor commitments – beyond one or two funding cycles – are typically more difficult to secure.
When approaching any donor, be prepared to make the case: What do you achieve as a network that individual member organizations could not achieve alone?
Source: Member fees
What this is: Fee that individual members agree to pay to support network operations (e.g., Annual Membership fee)
When & Why: However small the overall contribution to network budgets, networks should consider this strategy. Member fees signal to outside donors that members are committed and that they derive value from their participation in the network. Some networks use a sliding scale for fees, to address differences in members’ ability to pay.
Source: Project/program grants
What this is: Funds from donors that are project- or program- specific
When & Why: Most donors will support network projects/ programs that are in line with their own mission and strategies, rather than backing network operations.
Projects grant funds can be used to pay part of a network’s general overhead costs.
Source: Earned income
What this is: Fee for service; sales of products produced by network
When & Why: When a network’s members produce value for others (individuals or organizations) it may be able to charge a fee. For example, information products and analysis can be sold.
Source: In-kind contributions
What this is: Non-monetary contributions from members, whether in the form of sweat equity or the result of more formal network agreements.
When & Why: Individual members with specific capacities may enter agreements to provide resources (e.g., space or services) as in-kind contributions to the network.
Many networks calculate the value of in-kind contributions and add this to members’ fees when reporting members’ total contributions to donors.
Third in Network Impact’s series about network evaluation.
Monitoring changes in a network’s member-to-member connections is integral to network evaluation, especially when a network’s performance depends on its evolution (e.g., from low levels of connectivity to higher levels of connectivity, conversion of weak links to strong links, etc.). One way to display information about a network’s evolution is to create network maps We use special mapping software to analyze and visually display the information that we gather about network connections and changes over time. We’ve found that network maps generated in this way reveal patterns that are hard to “see” in the raw data and that are difficult to summarize narratively. (Read more about network structure/shape.)
Network mapping for evaluation purposes can be challenging, however. I was reminded of this recently when I set about mapping ties among homeless service providers in Massachusetts. In this case, pilot efforts to reduce rates of homelessness in the state are being implemented through ten new regional partnerships of many organizations. From the start, our evaluation envisaged the production of ten sets of “before” and “after” regional network maps to demonstrate and compare patterns of network change in relations among the partnering organizations.
We started on the right foot. We added a set of “network connections” questions to an online Network Health Survey that was already in the pipeline (network mapping practice #1: don’t over-survey). We discussed the potential utility of the results with network coordinators – not just the value to the evaluation but also to network members who, we thought, might use the visually compelling network maps to publicize and promote their new ways of working (practice #2: establish salience). We encouraged coordinators to publicize and promote the mapping project (practice #3: pre-notify and follow up with reminders). But, in the end, we were hampered by a low survey response rate from some networks.
In certain kinds of quantitative research, one can make do with a statistical sample. However network mapping of the kind we do requires close to a 100% response rate. We mapped “before” and “after” connections in 6 of the 10 networks and found some interesting patterns. In the other 4 networks, critical information was missing. Any story told in a graphic based on incomplete data would have been misleading.
What went wrong. We delivered our survey by email which has some advantages: people tend to provide longer open-ended responses to e-mail than to other types of surveys; research shows that responses to e-mail surveys tend to be more candid than responses to mail or phone surveys. In this case, however, many of our intended respondents were “fed up” to start with email and, as service providers, were already “over-surveyed” from other sources. (Turns out the problem is wider. The U.S. population as a whole is over-surveyed; response rates in the U.S. for all types and manner of survey are declining as a result). This is something we will pay closer attention to in the future.
First in a series about monitoring and assessing network practice.
In our experience, people who build networks for social change are deeply curious about their network’s performance, but they are wary of the conventional evaluation “straitjacket.” They can’t imagine how a rigid assessment framework could be usefully applied to the dynamic, self-organizing network they are nourishing. And they wonder how an evaluation approach designed to assess organizational practice could possibly capture the far more complex practice of network organizing.
When we design an evaluation for a network, we do draw on conventional evaluation principles but we also use a unique network evaluation framework to track and document a network’s evolution and outcomes. We look at things having to do with networks as a distinct organizing form, such as network structure and composition: Who is connected to whom? What is transacted through these links? We also track value creation (What value does the Network produce both for individual members and for the broader constituency it serves?) and internal network conditions that contribute tonetwork health (such as complementary capacities and diversity). Although it is sometimes difficult to tease out contributing factors, we try to design evaluations that allow network builders to assess the relationship between network organizing and network impact. What difference did network organizing make and why?
One way to document the difference that network organizing makes is to compare performance across networks with similar goals and different network organizing practices. Have you had any experience with this approach? What do you think of it? What approaches are you using?
When we first started thinking about network evaluation we found the work of two Canadians very helpful: Heather Creech and Terri Willard through the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Why qualitative studies are useful network learning tools.
Recently in Boston, I joined more than 30 other network consultants and technical assistance providers to share approaches, frameworks, tools and insights about building networks for social change. The convening, sponsored by the Barr Foundation and the Interaction Institute for Social Change, drew a diverse group (together we had experience supporting networks of different size, purpose, and developmental stage, spanning public, private, and nonprofit sectors, from the local to the global). Yet many of us had come to the same place in our thinking. Here is one of the convergences.
How, Not Why
One thing is clear: Most social change agents we work with don’t need to be convinced of the power of networks. The network conversation is already prevalent in many fields. What practitioners need/want is grounded advice that draws from sound principles but connects principles to a do-able strategy that addresses their particular case.
At Network Impact we think about this as the need for a “middle term” – the ground that connects general principles to network purpose, context and action. For example, we say that in general networks need both “bonds” and “bridges.” But some networks are just about bridges (a network that connects all the people in a community who care about substance abuse prevention) and some networks may need to focus their energy on deepening bonds at the core –before coming to consensus on a network action plan, for example.
At the convening many of us agreed that more diagnostic cases about network building would be helpful. More places to go for a “thick description” of network purpose and context that also describes a network development strategy or “fix” and the outcome. One our favorite network cases describes the development of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance – complete with back story, challenges, strategies and examples of network work plans. Authors are Mary Wissemann and Kristina Egan.
At Network Impact we also continue to think about ways to engage practitioners in chronicling their own network progress. In our work in network evaluation we have begun to include a qualitative component, encouraging network practitioners to reflect on their experience and write (or videograph) stories or cases. Members of the Massachusetts Regional Network to End Homelessness produce short reflections (250-500 words) on a quarterly basis. The sum of these reflections from the ten Regional Networks offers a lot of insight about why similar network strategies work well in some contexts and less well in others.
Do you know of a good network development case story? Share it with us through a comment.
In addition to detailed cases, how about a Case Directory? The Directory would list cases with a brief summary — just the headlines — with author or source. If you decide you’d like to know more, you would contact the author/source. Our friends at Cause Communications have a case template that we use in our consulting work to describe typical network challenges and solutions.
Profile of the Challenge:
• WHO: Rural advocates organized in five regional networks and two national networks
• WHAT: Influence policy to benefit rural people and places
• CHALLENGES: Diverse sectoral interests; difficulty building effective policy action initiatives
• QUESTIONS: How to decide on policy focus? Who will lead? What is the workplan?
What Was the Network Solution?
• Clarify decision making
• Identify criteria for deciding policy focus. Possible Options:
• Self governing steering committee with action teams
• Lead organization structure
• Network Manager structure
• All require a network agreement
Let me know what you think about the Directory of Cases idea. Do you have ideas for improving the Cause template. Do you have a case written up to share? Where are there other cases on the Internet that are worth linking to? Check out the 2 cases we’ve posted.
Second in a series about monitoring and assessing network practice.
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to network adaptation – and, from an evaluative perspective, how best to capture the trajectory of networks with multiple, emergent activities and connections. In open and rapidly evolving nets, of course, members often need real-time information to make effective decisions. But, even in relatively stable nets, organizers want to know about the results of their catalyzing efforts. So many networks begin with a deliberate effort to weave new connections, but few build in the means to systematically gauge the effect of such efforts over time.
Pete Plastrik and I continue to be interested in learning more about how to monitor patterns of network engagement and action in networks whose members use 2.0 digital media to connect and communicate. BTW we have learned a lot about this by following some of the conversations that Beth Kanter hosts on her blog. In other networks with known membership, we’ve had some success combining qualitative methods (e.g. interviews and member journaling) with member surveys.
Truth to tell, all-member surveys that we’ve developed took a lot of time to design. But most have been “baseline” surveys that cover a lot of ground in order to catch up on the network’s evolution. Such surveys can be followed up with shorter surveys to a subset of members (say, 20% per year). I recently learned that this has been the approach of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation in tracking their network of more than 400 fellows.
Have you designed a network survey? What kinds of questions did you include? What did you learn that was useful? Post a comment here.