Knowledge Exchange: Network Research and Evaluation

Insights From Building a Community Of Newsroom Technologists

The Knight Foundation released a report, “Insights From Building a Community Of Newsroom Technologists” that describes Network Impact’s work with OpenNews, a network that creates opportunities for technologists and journalists to connect, learn from each other and collaborate. The assessment and learning project included using social network data analysis, surveys and participant interviews.

Luz Gomez, Knight Foundation’s director for learning and impact explains  “…lessons from the project highlight the strength of networks in connecting people and advancing innovation, while providing journalists with a view into opportunities and gaps as they work to advance newsroom change,”

The full report can be found here on the Knight Foundation website.

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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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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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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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Connecting to Change the World

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.

Find a sample chapter and more on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site and you can get the book on Amazon or other online book sellers.

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Promising Practices: An Emerging Framework for Assessing Nonprofit Networks

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.

http://www.hfrp.org/var/hfrp/storage/original/application/6bdf92c3d7e970e7270588109e23b678.pdf

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Massachusetts Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness
 (ICHH), Regional Networks to End Homelessness Pilot Final Evaluation Report

This final evaluation report describes the progress of the Regional Networks to End Homelessness toward goals set forth by the ICHH such reducing the need for shelter and achieving housing placement outcomes and increasing opportunities for broad-based discussion with diverse stakeholders. Following brief introduction and background sections, the report summarizes the findings of the evaluation in detail; and offers recommendations, based upon these findings for long and short term action. The evaluation informed the United Ways of Massachusetts and the ICHH’s immediate commitment of $1 million to support network coordination in all regions through the following fiscal year, and, as consequence of the pilot results, the state legislature approved Home BASE, a major program that builds on the innovations successfully used in the pilot.

Can be downloaded at:  http://www.ppffound.org/documents/ichh_final_report.pdf

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Community Information Projects from Ideas to Impact

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?

The case studies: How four community information projects went from idea to impact can be found here and Knight’s blog post about the work here.

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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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