Knowledge Exchange

Our mission is to help share what we learn and build the social impact network field. Resources from articles, tools or reports that we develop or find useful can be found in here. We also periodically post blogs that include reflections on our work.

You can search by topic from the Knowledge Exchange topic menu or by type of resource: Articles, Blog Posts, News & Updates, Publications, Reports and Tools & Resources.

You can also see a listing of where our work has been cited or applied by other researchers and change agents.

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:

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Civic Tech: How to Measure Success

The civic tech field has expanded so widely in recent years, it’s hard to think of a major city or an area of civic life that these technologies don’t touch. In this dynamic environment, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been a field leader, investing over $25 million since 2010 in projects ranging from neighborhood forums, to civic crowdfunding platforms, to efforts that promote government innovation. For eighteen months, Network Impact worked with Knight Foundation grantees and other civic tech leaders to find out how they measure success, focusing on tools they’re using to track platform performance and assessment challenges they face along the way.

We started by identifying key outcomes related to these common civic tech objectives and gathered case examples of assessments from the field:

  • Build place-based social capital
  • Increase civic engagement
  • Promote deliberative democracy
  • Support open governance
  • Foster inclusion and diversity

Our work also led us to think about tracking the performance of a platform through its lifecycle – recognizing that assessment priorities vary with stage of development, from early testing of a minimum viable product to later-stage scaling of a tested concept.

The result of this research: two guides to evaluating civic tech that summarize assessment best practices, including leading methodologies and metrics that can help innovators monitor progress towards their goals and evaluate the impact of their efforts. Some of these assessment best practices focus on connections between users, both online and off-line, with an important network dimension.

Download the Guides:

Assessing Civic Tech: Case Studies and Resources for Tracking Outcomes is a publication of the Knight Foundation with Network Impact that focuses on measuring the impact of civic tech platforms on people, places, and processes.

How To Measure Success: A Practical Guide to Answering Common Civic Tech Assessment Questions is a Network Impact publication that offers examples and advice for monitoring a platform’s ongoing performance using tools and approaches that are effective and practical.

We have also created  Additional Tools and Resources pages that can be updated. Please send us suggestions for links to include.

Additionally, the Knight Foundation wrote up their key lessons from investing in civic tech that are also worth a read.

How  Code for America is using the Assessing Civic Tech guide

The release of this guide is coming at the right time. Demonstrations of what is possible are up in running in communities of every size across the United States. Now we need to find out not only what works, but what works best over time.

At Code for America, the guide will be particularly helpful for Fellowship teams and volunteer Brigades who are thinking about the questions they need to ask and the changes in attitudes they need to measure to assess progress towards increasing civic engagement and open governance. The process and case studies documented in this guide will be useful for structuring these assessments.

At Code for America, we believe that it is critically important to identify the residents, community groups, or government staff who will be using the particular public service program or benefit, then work with them early in the assessment design process. This guide provides important examples of how to frame an evaluation to include and work with intended beneficiaries. It offers sample questions and resources that will be very helpful to organizations and individuals who are beginning to explore how they can include measures of civic engagement and changing attitudes in their assessment of their efforts.

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Where is Big Data’s soul?: The ethics of data in civil society

Last month, Network Impact facilitated a work session track as part of the Ethics of Data in Civil Society conference at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. The convening was an impressive group of 100 individuals from around the world involved in work as varied as human rights, medical research, advocacy, academics, government, as well as leading tech companies.

Our session aimed to produce a high-level map of a data-sharing ecosystem – who is sharing data and who is using data – by looking at connections within and between sectors. For example, government law enforcement using data from private companies in their criminal investigations or a nonprofit sharing client/user data with another nonprofit or local government agency to assist with service provision. The next step was to consider what privacy, security or other ethical concerns arise from the exchange. With a better overall lay of the land, the hope was to identify places where progress is being made and identify examples or resources related to ethical guidelines that are robust, yet flexible enough for the evolving digital environment we are now working in. Our discussion did not uncover many existing resources, but we did identify several good examples of how existing ethical guidelines can be modified to keep pace with the staggering amount of data that is being collected, stored and shared by an increasing number of organizations.

Heather Leson from the Open Knowledge Foundation led a concurrent work session that focused on the data lifecycle to uncover key decision points in the use of data in civil society. Her group came up with three ideas to better equip the field to handle emerging ethical questions. Heather summarizes the process and ideas in this blog post .

It was an amazing and exhausting two days. Many thanks to the whole Stanford PACs team – Lucy Bernholz, Kim Meredith, Rob Reich and Sam Spiewak, the planning committee and all of the participants for such thought-provoking discussion.

More about the conference can be found on the Ethics of Data in Civil Society event page including a summary of the two days.

This suggested reading list is a great resource for anyone interested in the topic, including key articles that cover top issues, such as:

  • Six Provocations for Big Data by Danah Boyd, Kate Crawford – The current ecosystem around Big Data creates a new kind of digital divide: the Big Data rich and the Big Data poor.
  • Big Data Ethics by Neil M. Richards and Jonathan King – In this paper, they argue that big data, broadly defined, is producing increased powers of institutional awareness and power that require the development of a Big Data Ethics.
  • Case Studies on Big Data and Nonprofits by Jeff Raderstrong and Katlyn Porter for a course at George Washington University

A list of sample ethics codes can be found on Lucy Bernholz’s blog.

DataPopAlliance has a pretty comprehensive resource that provides a history, definitions and key facts and figures.

The Responsible Data Forum is also something to keep an eye on. It is a series of collaborative events, co-organized by Aspiration and the engine room, and convened to develop useful tools and strategies for dealing with the ethical, security and privacy challenges facing data-driven advocacy.

Finally, two of the organizers of the event, Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich, recently released a paper The Emergence of Digital Civil Society that explores where “civil society” stands in today’s digital world where the lines are no longer so clear, with B Corporations, impact investing and other blended ventures.




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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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Network Power for Philanthropy and Nonprofits

Drawing on cases of nonprofit networks, this article makes a case for widespread use of networks in the civil sector and examines the practical uses of the knowledge developed by “network science.” Individual chapters focus on the formation and structure of networks for philanthropy and non-profits from the most essential stages of development – framing and defining the term “network” itself – to the dynamics within existing networks and the interactions that sustain them over time. Written by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor for the Barr Foundation.

Download the article here

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Lawrence Community Works: Using Network Power to Restore a City

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.


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Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change

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.

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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.

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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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