Knowledge Exchange: Innovation Networks

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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Net-Centric Social Impact: Decentralized Organizing for Change

In our new “Web 2.0″ social-networking world, what’s the real promise of networks?
The three prevailing points of view toward the idea that networks offer an exciting new way of effecting social change both overstate and understate the potential social impact of connectivity.

•  Analysts say that networks are an underlying structure for practically everything, and we can learn something from this for how we run society. As noted in Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, “The power of networks is drawing increasing attention in mass media headlines as well as in specialized scientific literatures.” Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in his book Linked, exemplified this point of view:

“Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle. We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else… We have come to grasp the importance of networks.”

•    Embracers say that decentralized, highly autonomous structures–networks–are the revolutionary structures that will make society more effective and democratic. This view comes from a wide range of sources: “Web 2.0” Millenials promoting the “distributive power” of the Internet’s online networks; social movement builders opposing centralized power; and theoreticians who see a stark choice in how society organizes itself. Writing about the effort to halt the spread of swine flu, NY Times columnist David Brooks captured this either/or view:

“We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu… So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?… The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.”

Information and communications technologies drive this revolution, note the authors of Working Wikily: How Networks Are Changing Social Change, a Packard Foundation report:

“New tools and technologies… are changing the way we communicate and connect… The changes can be seen in the way people are working together to create and disseminate knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia; in how people solve complex mathematical problems or write very stable software, as with Linux; and even in purely social activities, like sharing photos on Flickr and meeting new friends on MySpace… Wikis and other social media are engendering new, networked ways of behaving–ways of working wikily–that are characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making and distributed action… People are beginning to use these same tools and approaches to create social change too–organizing new forms of political expression, social action, and community building.”

•    Skeptics say that, sure, networks are a different way of organizing work, but do they really do better than organizations? This comes from founders and managers of the many existing social-change organizations, as well as from philanthropic funders looking for more impact. “How do we know whether networks really work?” ask the authors of Working Wikily. Does the strength of networks “translate into real social impact in communities.” This is not just a reflexive fear of the new or the jarring implications of shifting to decentralized organizing; it is a serious concern about the effectiveness of network models and the not-insignificant challenges of designing, building, and managing networks.

At Network Impact, our point of view includes each of these—analysis, embrace, and skepticism—within an overarching framework.  Yes, networks are real and omnipresent. Yes, they create impressive effects. And yes they can deliver better results—but only in some, certainly not all, situations.

More importantly, we believe that the development of networks to achieve certain effects and benefits in certain situations is an emerging practice of specialized knowledge, skills, tools, and activities that can be learned, applied, and improved. This network-building practice benefits from knowledge about how networks work “in nature.” It can have large-scale, transformative effects of the sort claimed by Web 2.0 visionaries and decentralization advocates. It can offer comparative advantages to the organization-centric approach—but whether it does depends on many factors that have to be understood. In some cases, networks can replace an organization-centric approach; but in others, networks link organizations together, rather than replacing them; and in still others, especially when using standardized processes in a stable environment, organizations continue to rule. (As nuPOLIS partner John Cleveland says: “You don’t want to rely on a network to produce your weekly paycheck.”)

We’ve been working with networks–policy networks, advocacy networks, learning networks, production networks–for about five years, while also reading and learning about network theory. And we work as a network: nuPOLIS is a creation of the Innovation Network for Communities, designed with a small core and far-flung networks that produce social innovations. In the process, we’ve learned that:

•    Networks are emergent, but can be designed and planned.
•    Networks are decentralized and complex, but can be managed.
•    Networks are dynamic, but can be assessed.

Now, with Madeleine Taylor as the lead entrepreneur, we’re developing Network Impact to develop a comprehensive network-building practice for social change. NI will provide tools, such as the network assessment scorecard already posted. It will conduct a learning agenda, offer network planning, assessment, and building services. Stay tuned.

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Social Innovators of Detroit Unite!

Launched with support from the Innovation Network for Communities, the Detroit net is one of the nation’s few place-based networks for social innovators. Under the leadership of nuPOLIS partner John Heiss, a compulsive “connector” and innovation broker, it has gathered members, launched many projects, and started to establish a presence in the Detroit metro region. Go to www.detroitsocialinnovators.com .

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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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