Connecting to Change the World builds on an earlier resource that Pete and I developed called Net Gains. This latest collaboration with John Cleveland includes examples and lessons that have emerged from our work with social impact networks over the last decade or so. During that time, we’ve been introduced to many new networks and deepened our work with others. As a consequence, we have a better understanding of what makes some networks highly “generative.” By generative, we mean networks with a renewable collaborative capacity to generate numerous activities simultaneously. These are networks that activate members’ connections on an emergent basis as need and opportunities arise.
Examples in the book include RE AMP – more than 165 nonprofit organizations and foundations in eight Midwestern states working together on climate change and energy policies, Reboot- a network of young Jewish American “cultural creatives” who are exploring and redefining Jewish identity and community in the U.S. and the U.K., ten regional networks of state agencies and nonprofit providers that have organized to end homelessness in Massachusetts, and five regional and two national networks of rural-based organizations that are promoting public policies that benefit rural communities in the U.S. In all of these networks, members have been very deliberate about creating, strengthening and maintaining network ties in order to establish a base of connections from which many activities can arise at the same time or over time. This foundation is the starting point for the progression from connecting to aligning to production or joint action that we also discuss in the book.
Net Gains provides practical advice for the growing community of network builders developing networks for social change. The handbook draws from the experiences of network builders, case studies covering a diversity of different networks, and emerging scientific knowledge about “connectivity.” The guide is divided into four parts, each focusing on a specific element of network building and offering strategies for successful development of networks at different stages in their evolution, from the moment of their inception, to the management of their ongoing production.
The handbook can be downloaded here.
When the community is the network, as it is in Lawrence, Massachusetts, design follows a few simple rules.
For more than five years we’ve tracked, cheered on, and worked with one of the most intriguing community-based networks in the U.S.—the 5,000 member strong Lawrence Community Works. In a case study several years ago we wrote about the origins of the grassroots network, its early growth, and contribution to rejuvenating Lawrence, a failing industrial city in Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve been impressed by LCW’s disciplined application of network thinking to organizing low-income families.
Recently we heard Bill Traynor, leader of the team that has built the network, share some of the lessons they’ve learned. “The challenge at the beginning was to create an environment rich enough and valuable enough for people to create the value they wanted to create.”
- The network was designed to offer many different value propositions to residents—access to programs for adult literacy or Individual Development Accounts; community organizing efforts; networks for youth, and more. “What works for engaging people is to have a lot of different things going on; people have choices and feel a connection, an identity, with that environment.”
- The network was designed for easy entry and easy exit by its members. “It’s a loose membership, which is a more modern, organic way for people to engage… You need to have environment in which people can come in and out. Membership is a choice, not an imperative or a burden.”
- The network’s evolution has been managed to allow form to follow function. In too many community organizations organizational turf and other concerns get more attention than creating value for people. “Who is the lead agency, who decides what, who we are trumps what we do. There’s too much structure, too many presidents. That environment is way over built.” The network provides an alternative to these unattractive dynamics.
Why use a network? When it comes to policy-change networks, there are many reasons.
In our work with networks that aim to develop and advocate for public policy changes it’s been useful to lay out the many ways in which building connectivity–networks–can provide change agents with advantages. Here’s an analysis of the ways that building policy networks can help with each of the key steps in the policy-change process:
1. Defining the Issue. Networks can–
• Scan for/retrieve/distribute information and perspectives about issues
• Identify issues that are outside a “mainstream” perspective
• Connect to “distant” expertise that is needed
2. Articulating policy alternatives. Networks can–
• Scan for/retrieve/distribute information
• Assess hypotheses for policy change from multiple perspectives
• Connect to “distant” expertise that is needed
3. Navigating the political rapids. Networks can–
• Identify policy decision makers and movers
• Identify stakeholders/allies, including networks of stakeholders
• Build relationships that allow coalition building and “horse-trading”
• Reach/connect to decision makers and movers in variety of ways (publicly, privately, one-on-one, in mass)
• Increase presence in formal policy making bodies (e.g., government advisory boards)
• Find others to “own” the policy change and lead the charge
4. Recognizing the window of opportunity. Networks can–
• Scan for “early warning” about local policy developments
• Scan for national issue agendas and policy trends that reveal windows
• Maintain contact with key players in policy deciding processes (agenda setters, etc.)
5. Managing mobilization and implementation. Networks can–
• Mobilize critical mass of advocacy voices
• Monitor implementation and effects of policies
• Raise visibility of implementation with stakeholders and media
But what a network’s members care about can be complicated. Just ask the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
Knowing what network members want from each other and want to give to each other, and delivering on these “value propositions” makes or breaks a network. “If there’s no value,” says Bill Traynor, one of our favorite network builders, “people will start to exit. It’s a self-regulating system.” That’s pretty straightforward, but actually understanding and monitoring the members’ value propositions (VPs) is quite complicated. A member may embrace more than one proposition; different members may embrace different propositions; and what members care about may change over time. Given this complexity and dynamism, it’s worthwhile to check in on a network’s value propositions fairly regularly, not just when starting up the network.
One network we work with–the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), with about 70 members, each in a different city in the U.S. and Canada–conducted a value proposition check earlier this year. It asked members about nine distinct value propositions (VPs) that had been previously identified by members during their annual meeting. First members were asked to select and rank their three most important value propositions for continuing participation in the network. Then they were asked to score how well the network had been doing in the past year on delivering on their top-priority value propositions.
The results were illuminating and significantly influenced the network’s strategy for the next year.
• Of the nine VPs, 2 collected most of the #1 priority votes: “Getting to know many colleagues with similar jobs and with whom I can share” and “Having access to trusted information about issues and models.” As the summary of findings reported: It’s all about connecting to peers and quality information. Period. Nothing is in 3rdplace even. And this result was consistent with what the members had said a year earlier–a good sign that the network was on the right track.
• When it came to those two top value propositions, majorities of the members reported that the network was “delivering very well for me.” But nearly a third of members said the network’s delivery “could be improved”–and that triggered alarm bells that led network organizers to focus on improving and increasing specific network activities.
• Looking at several of the lower priority value propositions, it was noticeable that sizeable minorities of the membership reported they saw opportunities for participation but were not using them. That finding also prompted a refocus on members who had not become very active in the variety of network activities. They were contacted to find out more about how the network could better meet their needs.
As a result of its survey of members, the network has solid baseline information about the VP drivers of the network–and was able to tweak some of its plans to boost the network’s response to what its members value. It created a new service, the “small group discussion marketplace,” because some members wanted more opportunities to interact in smaller groups.
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 .