Note: This research project was featured in an article in The New Republic “Escape from Facebookistan” in May 2018.
Front Porch Forum’s (FPF) mission is to help more than 130,000 neighbors across Vermont’s 260,000 households connect and build community in their neighborhoods. Using software they co-created with their technology partner, Toronto-based TWG, FPF hosts free online neighborhood forums that provide members with opportunities to share information, goods and services; promote local businesses and contractors; and engage in discussion on community issues. Through the e-newsletters, neighbors talk about neighborly things: missing pets, households items to borrow or lend, crime, and wild-life sightings. They also talk about opportunities to get involved in their community by volunteering or by engaging in town hall, school board or other community discussions. And they often go offline to meet each other face to face, or attend events.
FPF’s technology has several distinct features:
- FPF forums are not threaded discussions. This means there is no direct back and forth between neighbors in real-time. Instead, neighbors who see an issue raised in one e-newsletter can either email the author off-list, or submit a posting for the next e-newsletter, which builds-in lag time in discussions.
- FPF has a team of Vermont-based, online community managers who review all postings
- Postings are ordered first by FPF’s back-end technology, and then reviewed or re-ordered by online community managers.
FPF’s overarching mission to provide a public service to communities drove them to ask: What impact are FPF postings and discussions having over time? Could technology like FPF help to build social capital in communities? With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), FPF partnered with Network Impact to explore these questions.
Social capital is commonly defined as social connections and the norms of trustworthiness and reciprocity that arise from them. Social capital is considered a predictor of health and well-being, economic development and responsive government (Putnam, 1993; La Porta et al. (1997); Knack and Keefer (1997)). In their research, RWJF highlights the importance of socially connected communities, noting that people who feel attached to their place are “likely to be healthier than those who feel isolated or marginalized…and more inclined to take action to improve our own health and the health of others.”
Efforts to better understand social capital and social networks in place-based settings like neighborhoods often focus on the progression from weak to strong ties in a network over time, as strong ties typically indicate greater trust and connection. Recent research suggests that weak ties formed by short, transactional interactions with other people impact well-being (Sandstrom and Dunn, 2014). Part of FPF’s overarching hypothesis about the impact of their technology is that if neighbors have an easy, friendly, no-cost way to communicate daily, then their perception of their neighborhood and their role in it will become richer. They will pay closer attention to local goings on and begin to get more involved. Then, when trouble or opportunity arrives, this collection of neighborly, conversing, helpful neighbors will respond, whether it’s digging out elderly neighbors after a snowstorm or going after one-time funding to build a community youth center. In this light, small acts of neighborliness take on new meaning. In our research, we hypothesized that participating in or witnessing these small acts create weak ties between neighbors that are nonetheless powerful enough to encourage place attachment, a key correlate of social capital.
We worked with FPF to create a Theory of Action to describe how the exposure to e-newsletters might affect FPF members over time. Below is a simplified version. (To view the full, detailed Theory of Action click here ).
To test elements of the Theory of Action, we designed an online member survey that was sent to all FPF members and completed by over 13,000 members. We then integrated member usage data from FPF’s back-end database, which allowed us to match survey responses with members’ online behavior and engagement data (for example, how many times a member has ever posted, which forum s/he is a member of, whether sh/e is a public official). This allowed us to integrate and analyze both self-reported impact data from the survey and actual usage data on behavior patterns.
Results of our analysis confirmed that FPF is helping to build social capital and that witnessing everyday acts of neighborliness is a powerful driver of both online and offline community engagement.
Self-report data strongly suggest that members are driven to be more engaged with FPF by witnessing other members of their community participate in small acts of neighborliness. Notably, this finding also holds for members who gave lower scores when asked to rate their neighborhood and were less optimistic about their neighborhood’s future, both common correlates of low levels of social capital.
- FPF is having an impact on members regardless of how often, or even if, they post. A positive impact is experienced by all members, even those who participate less and have lower online engagement.
- Across all types of forum communities, discussions of local issues were a top-value generator.
- FPF is likely having more of an impact on offline actions in communities than is currently captured. When asked how often they take action offline in their community as a result of an FPF post, 18% of respondents with low online engagement reported taking offline action as a result of FPF once a month or more (compared to 28% for those who are highly engaged online).
- Top factors for remaining a member in FPF were staying connected to members of the community and staying informed about what is going on locally.
This research provides a jumping off point for digging deeper into how technology can enhance opportunities to build social capital in place. Lessons from this research that could be applied and tested in connection with other efforts to use technology to build community in place include:
- Monitor impact: The field of civic tech has advanced considerably in recent years, and many innovators are moving past standard usage metrics to include outcomes-based research and tracking in their platform and tech monitoring. By conducting research that tracks how and why impact is generated for users and their communities, tech creators are able to maximize that impact by increasing platform engagement and social capital building over time. You can find our publications and resources for evaluating civic tech initiatives here.
- Support frequent small acts of neighborliness – To support place attachment and increased social capital in communities, offer both online and offline opportunities to participate in and witness small acts of connection and kindness.
- Create offline ambassadors – Recruit users who are active online who also report taking actions offline to be ambassadors for both the technology and for community building and engagement. By connecting those engaged members with local initiatives you can further explore ways to support active online and offline engagement. And, local offline ambassadors can reinforce the platform’s impact in the community.
- Use information hierarchy to show users that you are responsive to what they value – People in different communities may value different kinds of information. For example, FPF members who rated their community higher found postings on local crime to be the most valuable, while those who rated their community lower found information on local events to be the most valuable. Differences may reflect other variables as well, such as needs and preferences in rural vs. urban areas. Collect research data that describe the highest value generators for different places, as well as what drives users to engage more, and use that data to highlight information that drives engagement and creates the most value (e.g. putting information about a particular topic at the beginning of the newsletter).
- Hyperlocal is not dead: Many smaller communities lack good local news and information sources. The fact that FPF is by, for and about Vermonters was second highest ranked driver of platform engagement. FPF built a service and a company intent on supporting authentic community interactions and opportunities to share information. In a limited analysis of open-ended responses about why they remain a member of FPF, members testified that FPF was the best source of community information they could get. Especially in rural and small communities, there is an information gap that technology is well-positioned to bridge to keep people informed, connected and aware of opportunities.
- Putnam, Robert with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- La Porta, Rafael; Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny (1997). “Trust in Large Organizations.” American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 87, 333-38.
- Knack, Stephen and Keefer, Philip (1997). “Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff? A Cross-Country Investigation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4), 1251-88.
- Sandstrom, G. and Dunn, E. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why qualitative studies are useful network learning tools.
Recently in Boston, I joined more than 30 other network consultants and technical assistance providers to share approaches, frameworks, tools and insights about building networks for social change. The convening, sponsored by the Barr Foundation and the Interaction Institute for Social Change, drew a diverse group (together we had experience supporting networks of different size, purpose, and developmental stage, spanning public, private, and nonprofit sectors, from the local to the global). Yet many of us had come to the same place in our thinking. Here is one of the convergences.
How, Not Why
One thing is clear: Most social change agents we work with don’t need to be convinced of the power of networks. The network conversation is already prevalent in many fields. What practitioners need/want is grounded advice that draws from sound principles but connects principles to a do-able strategy that addresses their particular case.
At Network Impact we think about this as the need for a “middle term” – the ground that connects general principles to network purpose, context and action. For example, we say that in general networks need both “bonds” and “bridges.” But some networks are just about bridges (a network that connects all the people in a community who care about substance abuse prevention) and some networks may need to focus their energy on deepening bonds at the core –before coming to consensus on a network action plan, for example.
At the convening many of us agreed that more diagnostic cases about network building would be helpful. More places to go for a “thick description” of network purpose and context that also describes a network development strategy or “fix” and the outcome. One our favorite network cases describes the development of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance – complete with back story, challenges, strategies and examples of network work plans. Authors are Mary Wissemann and Kristina Egan.
At Network Impact we also continue to think about ways to engage practitioners in chronicling their own network progress. In our work in network evaluation we have begun to include a qualitative component, encouraging network practitioners to reflect on their experience and write (or videograph) stories or cases. Members of the Massachusetts Regional Network to End Homelessness produce short reflections (250-500 words) on a quarterly basis. The sum of these reflections from the ten Regional Networks offers a lot of insight about why similar network strategies work well in some contexts and less well in others.
Do you know of a good network development case story? Share it with us through a comment.
In addition to detailed cases, how about a Case Directory? The Directory would list cases with a brief summary — just the headlines — with author or source. If you decide you’d like to know more, you would contact the author/source. Our friends at Cause Communications have a case template that we use in our consulting work to describe typical network challenges and solutions.
Profile of the Challenge:
• WHO: Rural advocates organized in five regional networks and two national networks
• WHAT: Influence policy to benefit rural people and places
• CHALLENGES: Diverse sectoral interests; difficulty building effective policy action initiatives
• QUESTIONS: How to decide on policy focus? Who will lead? What is the workplan?
What Was the Network Solution?
• Clarify decision making
• Identify criteria for deciding policy focus. Possible Options:
• Self governing steering committee with action teams
• Lead organization structure
• Network Manager structure
• All require a network agreement
Let me know what you think about the Directory of Cases idea. Do you have ideas for improving the Cause template. Do you have a case written up to share? Where are there other cases on the Internet that are worth linking to? Check out the 2 cases we’ve posted.
Urban Sustainability Directors hold their first annual meeting in Chicago.
Sixty-five sustainability directors from cities and counties in the U.S. and Canada came together for the first annual Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) gathering in Chicago on September 23 to 25, 2009. Funded by the Surdna Foundation, The Home Depot Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Blackstone Ranch Institute, the USDN was formed to enable public sector sustainability leaders to learn from each other and accelerate achievement of ambitious city sustainability goals.
Mayors across North America from Vancouver to Miami are taking action to ensure that their cities are a part of the solution to global climate change. The commitment and action of these mayors has led to the growth in city staff dedicated to sustainable urban development, pursuing policies and actions from recycling and green building to green jobs and climate change planning. While this committed cadre of local government leaders has burgeoned, they have worked in isolation of each other, often tackling similar issues as their peers across the country without a national network to share experiences and partner.
While the mainstream media and non-profit environmental organizations often play cities off-of each other to see which is the greenest, these cities have joined forces to ensure mutual success and sharing of experiences in achieving urban sustainability goals to improve quality of life while solving environmental challenges, achieving cost savings, and promoting inclusive prosperity.
The fist annual USDN meeting included lively discussion of such common issues as energy efficiency retrofits in buildings, zero waste strategies, green infrastructure, and green workforce development. Members also discussed how to maximize the effectiveness of their sustainability offices at managing change. During the next twelve months, members will continue to network and support each others efforts to address sustainability challenges.
The co-chairs for the network are Sadhu Johnston from the city of Chicago, and Amanda Eichel from Seattle.
For more information on the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, contact Julia Parzen at [email protected]
by Julia Parzen