Building an Internet platform that links rural networks into a force for public policy change.
When the Kellogg Foundation started investing in getting grassroots networks in rural areas to work together to develop and advocate for rural-friendly government policies, it envisioned the creation of “a shared platform that helps coordinate research, learning, tool and resource development, expertise, and communication.” In other words, using the Internet to build a new collective capacity by connecting, learning, and aligning thousands of rural-based organizations, and helping them to collaborate and organize at vast scale.
To help turn that vision into reality, the Innovation Network for Communities developed a concept paper about what such a user-driven digital platform might look like and how it might be built. Although the idea focused on the particulars of supporting rural policy networks, we suspect that it has application to other network building situations.
Our starting point for the concept was what the platform is supposed to help people do. We imagined that “RuralUS.net” (a working name for the Web site) would help individuals, organizations, and networks interested in and engaging in rural policy change to:
• Find, learn about, and connect with each other, and then strengthen links.
• Align and organize in digital communities of varying size, shapes, and duration around shared characteristics (e.g., geography, age), interests, and identities.
• Access expert resources (digital modules, news feeds, webinar training, etc.) for developing policy change capacities and efforts.
• Collaborate in the production of policy change (e.g., identify opportunities; develop policy agendas; develop policy proposals; generate advocacy; etc.)
• Evaluate ideas and information by assembling collective points of view digitally (based on voting, Web page rankings, member- or user-community recommendation “engines” like Amazon.com’s “others like you have purchased…,” etc.)
The platform, we proposed, ”will combine the functions of a more traditional ‘trusted source’ Web site that provides users with reliable information, tools, and expertise with those of a ‘user-sourced’ site that engages users in peer-to-peer accessing, generating, sharing, using, and archiving of information.” Users would be able to:
• Build online personal social networks nationwide relevant to their concerns.
• Engage in “rapid learning communities” focused on learning about rural policy issues of immediate importance to them.
• Search for and access a wide range of expert materials, tools, and advice concerning specific rural policies; how to build policy change networks; and other topics;
• Generate peer-to-peer knowledge about and tools for policy-change processes and specific policy issues.
• Archive and share their experiences as rural policy change makers.
• Digitally access relevant meetings and conferences (e.g., regional planning meetings).
• Readily access and share news from the rural policy frontlines: news feeds, blogs.
• Build their policy-change capacities, such as in communications for policy advocacy.
• Create a user-generated “early warning” system that identifies and alerts others about changes in local, state, regional, tribal, federal policy opportunities.
Of course, what capabilities should be built into the platform depends on what the potential users say they need and would use. To get some sense of the potential look and functions of the user-driven dimension of RuralUS.net, we looked closely at a number of Web sites, including:
www.govloop.com– online community for government employees created by Steve Ressler, a federal IT employee, about 5 years ago. “I wanted an online forum to connect all my various groups and to connect with government employees across agencies. I wanted an informal place where people could gather, share their ideas, and ask other questions. A place that could serve as a repository for both current and future government employees as they start and grow in their career.”
www.techsoup.com – technology resources for nonprofit organizations. “TechSoup.org offers nonprofits a one-stop resource for technology needs by providing free information, resources, and support. In addition to online information and resources, we offer a product philanthropy service called TechSoup Stock. Here, nonprofits can access donated and discounted technology products, generously provided by corporate and nonprofit technology partners.” (Site is 10 years old; unique monthly visitors: 109,880.)
www.changemakers.net — Supported by Ashoka Foundation. “Changemakers is an initiative of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public that focuses on the rapidly growing world of social innovation. It provides solutions and resources needed to help everyone become a changemaker and presents compelling stories that explore the fundamental principles of successful social innovation around the world. Changemakers is building the world’s first global online “open source” community that competes to surface the best social solutions, and then collaborates to refine, enrich, and implement those solutions. Changemakers begins by providing an overarching intellectual framework for collaborative competitions that bring together individual social change initiatives into a more powerful whole.” (Unique visitors monthly: 25,797)
www.socialedge.org – supported by Skoll Foundation. “Check what our expert bloggers have to say about social entrepreneurship: practical advice, inspirational stories, name dropping… Every week is a new story on Social Edge.” (Unique visits monthly: 21,662)
Point us to other examples that you know about. Let us know your thoughts about designing digital media to promote social change.
Answering some basic questions about the network can yield a useful diagnosis.
As I’ve designed networks and coached network builders, the question always comes up: How can we know how the network is doing? In some ways, the answer is complicated. There are different types of networks and networks evolve through different stages–factors that should be taken into account. But it’s also true that some things about networks hold for any network at any stage of life.
Working with colleagues at Cause Communications and nuPOLIS, and testing ideas with the marvelous networks of Rural People Rural Policy, an initiative of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we’ve developed a handy Network Health Scorecard. With just 22 questions and a 1-5 scoring system, it focuses on key aspects of any network: purpose, performance, operations, and capacity. It’s designed for group use–network members answer each question and then discuss their answers–or on your own.
Try it and post comments to let us know how it worked for you so we can improve this tool for network builders.
Madeleine Taylor is the lead entrepreneur at Network Impact and a principal in Arbor Consulting.