What Network Builders Need: More “How To” Cases

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.

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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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