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.
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.
This case study offers a glimpse into the problems of Lawrence Massachusetts – a community facing the daunting task of restoring a dying industrial city – and the network of community residents – the Lawrence Community Works – who are approaching this challenge using an innovative strategy: network building. The study addresses the origins of Lawrence Community Works, the development of the network, it’s governance structure and open architecture, and the challenges the network will likely face in the future. Written by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, for the Barr Foundation in 2004.
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.
Based on their handbook for network builders Net Gains, Madeleine Taylor and Peter Plastrik provide strategies for evaluating the work of nonprofit networks for social change. This article appears in the Harvard Family Project’s Evaluation Exchange Periodical issue XIII, released in 2007 and focuses on the unique characteristics and evolutionary paths of networks and how builders can customize evaluation to account for these factors.
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?
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.
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.
Taking your network’s temperature regularly is easy—and helps to inform continuous improvement of the network’s effectiveness.
When the 14 organizations in the Southwest Rural Policy Network met in November 2010 to discuss how well their network was doing, they didn’t just share their latest impressions. They had data stretching back nearly a year and a half. Since June 2009, as part of their formal work plan, they had self-assessed the network five times using a Network Health Scorecard. The assessment covered four essential categories: the network’s purpose, performance, operations, and capacity. The process only takes a few minutes after the network’s quarterly meeting—but reveals a great deal about how network members judge the network.
In November, Joyce Hospodar, the network member who chairs the network’s evaluation committee, summarized the scores—on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being low/5 being high—for the past five quarters: Purpose scores were holding steady. Performance scores peaked the previous spring. Operations and Capacity hovered around 4.0, but dipped recently.
Interestingly, when network members also scored where they thought the network’s health was compared to a year earlier, the ratings were all substantially higher than at the outset.
The scorecard is a tool, one source of evaluative feedback a network can use to gauge how well it’s doing and what sort of improvements might be useful. “Note,” says network coordinator Mikki Anaya, “this assessment only measures one aspect of the SWRPN’s effectiveness—the capacity/organizational efforts of the network.” A different evaluation will look at the network’s policy advocacy activities.
The one we developed has a total of 22 questions divided into the four categories. Several networks have adapted the questions to better reflect the specifics of their network. But in any case, the evaluative process is the same:
- Identify key indicators of the network’s well-being
- Regularly collect data from the members
- Analyze the data and share it with members
- Determine what changes are needed
Kudos to the members of the SW Rural Policy Network for picking up on this tool and incorporating its use into their network practice.
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.