Tag Archives: Networks

Easy Come, Easy Go: Designing a Community Based Network

When the community is the network, as it is in Lawrence, Massachusetts, design follows a few simple rules.

For more than five years we’ve tracked, cheered on, and worked with one of the most intriguing community-based networks in the U.S.—the 5,000 member strong Lawrence Community Works. In a case study several years ago we wrote about the origins of the grassroots network, its early growth, and contribution to rejuvenating Lawrence, a failing industrial city in Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve been impressed by LCW’s disciplined application of network thinking to organizing low-income families.
Recently we heard Bill Traynor, leader of the team that has built the network, share some of the lessons they’ve learned. “The challenge at the beginning was to create an environment rich enough and valuable enough for people to create the value they wanted to create.”

  • The network was designed to offer many different value propositions to residents—access to programs for adult literacy or Individual Development Accounts; community organizing efforts; networks for youth, and more. “What works for engaging people is to have a lot of different things going on; people have choices and feel a connection, an identity, with that environment.”
  • The network was designed for easy entry and easy exit by its members. “It’s a loose membership, which is a more modern, organic way for people to engage… You need to have environment in which people can come in and out. Membership is a choice, not an imperative or a burden.”
  • The network’s evolution has been managed to allow form to follow function. In too many community organizations organizational turf and other concerns get more attention than creating value for people. “Who is the lead agency, who decides what, who we are trumps what we do. There’s too much structure, too many presidents. That environment is way over built.” The network provides an alternative to these unattractive dynamics.
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Network Advantages

Why use a network? When it comes to policy-change networks, there are many reasons.
In our work with networks that aim to develop and advocate for public policy changes it’s been useful to lay out the many ways in which building connectivity–networks–can provide change agents with advantages. Here’s an analysis of the ways that building policy networks can help with each of the key steps in the policy-change process:

1. Defining the Issue. Networks can–
•    Scan for/retrieve/distribute information and perspectives about issues
•    Identify issues that are outside a “mainstream” perspective
•    Connect to “distant” expertise that is needed

2. Articulating policy alternatives. Networks can–
•    Scan for/retrieve/distribute information
•    Assess hypotheses for policy change from multiple perspectives
•    Connect to “distant” expertise that is needed

3. Navigating the political rapids. Networks can–
•    Identify policy decision makers and movers
•    Identify stakeholders/allies, including networks of stakeholders
•    Build relationships that allow coalition building and “horse-trading”
•    Reach/connect to decision makers and movers in variety of ways (publicly, privately, one-on-one, in mass)
•    Increase presence in formal policy making bodies (e.g., government advisory boards)
•    Find others to “own” the policy change and lead the charge

4. Recognizing the window of opportunity. Networks can–
•    Scan for “early warning” about local policy developments
•    Scan for national issue agendas and policy trends that reveal windows
•    Maintain contact with key players in policy deciding processes (agenda setters, etc.)

5. Managing mobilization and implementation. Networks can–
•    Mobilize critical mass of advocacy voices
•    Monitor implementation and effects of policies
•    Raise visibility of implementation with stakeholders and media

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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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New National Urban Sustainability Network Launches

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

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Net-Centric Social Impact: Decentralized Organizing for Change

In our new “Web 2.0″ social-networking world, what’s the real promise of networks?
The three prevailing points of view toward the idea that networks offer an exciting new way of effecting social change both overstate and understate the potential social impact of connectivity.

•  Analysts say that networks are an underlying structure for practically everything, and we can learn something from this for how we run society. As noted in Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, “The power of networks is drawing increasing attention in mass media headlines as well as in specialized scientific literatures.” Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in his book Linked, exemplified this point of view:

“Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle. We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else… We have come to grasp the importance of networks.”

•    Embracers say that decentralized, highly autonomous structures–networks–are the revolutionary structures that will make society more effective and democratic. This view comes from a wide range of sources: “Web 2.0” Millenials promoting the “distributive power” of the Internet’s online networks; social movement builders opposing centralized power; and theoreticians who see a stark choice in how society organizes itself. Writing about the effort to halt the spread of swine flu, NY Times columnist David Brooks captured this either/or view:

“We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu… So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?… The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.”

Information and communications technologies drive this revolution, note the authors of Working Wikily: How Networks Are Changing Social Change, a Packard Foundation report:

“New tools and technologies… are changing the way we communicate and connect… The changes can be seen in the way people are working together to create and disseminate knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia; in how people solve complex mathematical problems or write very stable software, as with Linux; and even in purely social activities, like sharing photos on Flickr and meeting new friends on MySpace… Wikis and other social media are engendering new, networked ways of behaving–ways of working wikily–that are characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making and distributed action… People are beginning to use these same tools and approaches to create social change too–organizing new forms of political expression, social action, and community building.”

•    Skeptics say that, sure, networks are a different way of organizing work, but do they really do better than organizations? This comes from founders and managers of the many existing social-change organizations, as well as from philanthropic funders looking for more impact. “How do we know whether networks really work?” ask the authors of Working Wikily. Does the strength of networks “translate into real social impact in communities.” This is not just a reflexive fear of the new or the jarring implications of shifting to decentralized organizing; it is a serious concern about the effectiveness of network models and the not-insignificant challenges of designing, building, and managing networks.

At Network Impact, our point of view includes each of these—analysis, embrace, and skepticism—within an overarching framework.  Yes, networks are real and omnipresent. Yes, they create impressive effects. And yes they can deliver better results—but only in some, certainly not all, situations.

More importantly, we believe that the development of networks to achieve certain effects and benefits in certain situations is an emerging practice of specialized knowledge, skills, tools, and activities that can be learned, applied, and improved. This network-building practice benefits from knowledge about how networks work “in nature.” It can have large-scale, transformative effects of the sort claimed by Web 2.0 visionaries and decentralization advocates. It can offer comparative advantages to the organization-centric approach—but whether it does depends on many factors that have to be understood. In some cases, networks can replace an organization-centric approach; but in others, networks link organizations together, rather than replacing them; and in still others, especially when using standardized processes in a stable environment, organizations continue to rule. (As nuPOLIS partner John Cleveland says: “You don’t want to rely on a network to produce your weekly paycheck.”)

We’ve been working with networks–policy networks, advocacy networks, learning networks, production networks–for about five years, while also reading and learning about network theory. And we work as a network: nuPOLIS is a creation of the Innovation Network for Communities, designed with a small core and far-flung networks that produce social innovations. In the process, we’ve learned that:

•    Networks are emergent, but can be designed and planned.
•    Networks are decentralized and complex, but can be managed.
•    Networks are dynamic, but can be assessed.

Now, with Madeleine Taylor as the lead entrepreneur, we’re developing Network Impact to develop a comprehensive network-building practice for social change. NI will provide tools, such as the network assessment scorecard already posted. It will conduct a learning agenda, offer network planning, assessment, and building services. Stay tuned.

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Net Health: A Scorecard for Assessing How Your Network is Doing

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.

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