Networks for Social Impact: Welcome to the Start of Something Big

We’re betting on network approaches to become an important way of increasing social change.

For the past six years, Madeleine Taylor and I have been working with the idea that network-building approaches offer social-change agents and organizations a powerful new way to generate impact. We’ve consulted with networks large and small; written and circulated articles and drafted a handbook, Net Gains, that thousands have downloaded for free; and provided a PDF Network Health Scorecard, also free. In the process we’ve become convinced that networks for social impact is an emerging field ripe with potential value and opportunities for development–but also with evolutionary challenges. Recently we’ve summarized our assessment of the field’s condition, as part of the development strategy for our Center for Network Impact, and wanted to share this. Your feedback is welcome.

•    There is a growing interest in the use of networks as alternatives and/or complements to organizational structures in the nonprofit/social-innovation/philanthropic sector. In the wake of several highly popular books about network phenomenon and theory, a significant jump in information from academics, practitioners, and experts has occurred. The rapid and wide spread of Web 2.0, digital social networking, ensures that interest in the many applications of networks will be sustained.

•    The “practice field” is in an early stage of development. In our analysis of field-building, this first stage is characterized by conceptual framing and isolated examples of practice. In the next developmental stage, networks of practitioners and a wave of innovations will emerge, but practices remain fragmentary and are often considered to be proprietary. This precedes a stage in which practitioners converge around a common frameworks, methods, and tools; integrate previously differentiated practices; and develop a professional implementation support network.

•    Some portions of the field appear to be gaining greater traction than others.Several growth areas are evident:

  • The use by governments and larger nonprofits of service-delivery networks to reduce costs and increase effectiveness. Emergency preparedness is one niche in which both public and nonprofit entities are redesigning their systems around network models.
  • Civic/nonprofit and community use of policy development and advocacy networks, driven by the success of Internet-based political action and growing interest in engaging a wide range of stakeholders in policy decision-making.
  • The use by some foundations and nonprofits of networks for integrated place-based development.
  • The use by some foundations of networks as a strategy for improving the effectiveness of grantmaking and efficiency in nonprofit sectors.
  • “Web 2.0” social networks, driven by adaptation of new technological tools.

•   The growing demand for knowledge about using networks for social impact is both top-down and bottom-up. Top-down “design” knowledge is sought by larger, more established institutions—foundations, public agencies, and larger nonprofits—that want to increase their effectiveness, but are uncertain about the value of network approaches or how to design these approaches. Bottom-up “practice” knowledge is sought by individuals and smaller organizations that want to get smarter about the use of networks, but have little funding to pay for learning and no established learning processes they can plug in to.

•    The expertise about network building for social change and innovation covers the range of network theory, design, management, evaluation, and investing, but much of this relatively new knowledge is not made practical for and easily accessible by practitioners. Tools, “just in time” advice, and easily navigated information products are in demand, but there’s little capacity to respond at the scale of this demand.

•    Development (philanthropic) capital is scarce. Few foundations have identified network building as a strategy that is funded (as opposed to just talked about) and there is competition among development practitioners for resources. For now, the prevailing model for field development is based on scarcity, rather than abundance, of resources.

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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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