Networks:The Social Sector’s Way to Scale Change

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 - 15:15

Cooperating, coordinating, collaborating with other groups – all three behaviors can amplify a nonprofit’s effectiveness in addressing the needs of people and communities. However, building networks that reflect the best of those behaviors is tough, as anyone who has tried knows.

Put simply, a network refers to any sustained effort around which many different, autonomous organizations work in concert as equal partners pursuing a common social or civic purpose. If you’ve done this, you’ve likely experienced some uncertainty, even frustration or perplexity at the high level of demand that networked action places on your organization. Perhaps your network investment produced some greater good that benefited the people you serve and advanced the societal difference you want to make through your organization’s mission. If you’re lucky, you saw all the groups in the network gradually begin to align their individual organizational missions around aspects of the network’s broader purpose.

Networks that Work

What sort of network were you a part of? A cooperative network where the stakes are relatively low – no plans for big systems or policy changes, just good information sharing, joint learning and better relationship building? Perhaps you participated in a coordinative network that brings together several organizations to align, adjust or streamline service delivery or to advocate better in the policy arena for laws and regulations that benefit the people you serve. Or, maybe you were part of that mother of all network types – a collaborative network – in which numerous organizations, even cross-sectoral groupings of government agencies, businesses and nonprofits, fundamentally re-frame, re-think and realign their relationships in ways that reshape an entire field, a public policy or a system of social endeavor.

There’s a lot to learn and huge risks involved when the stakes are as high as fundamental systems or policy change. Even the seemingly benign act of just meeting with others in your field can feel risky if you’re uncertain about the role your organization plays, or the security of its position and value in a particular societal niche. Confident leaders often assume they have a high tolerance for risk. When confronted, however, with the street-level reality that network-driven change might require them to negotiate turf or resources, many leaders re-position to places where the risks feel more manageable.

Yet the threat of network failure can grow very real very quickly if groups form a network based not on a strong, mutually agreed purpose but rather on shaky motives. For example, joining forces in a network merely to meet a funder’s grant requirements can backfire badly. Leaders of groups without pre-existing relationships tend to do very poorly at looking one another squarely in the eye, let alone developing trust. This can lead to trouble anticipating, identifying and dealing straight around the conflicts about priorities and preferred approaches to problems that working in a network almost always produces.

Conflict, after all, is never far from the surface in most networks. A whole lot of factors – like different histories, leadership styles, fiscal strength, political positioning, and so on – make conflict inevitable. But it does not have to be fatal. Groups that calmly and honestly plan for the management of conflict and learn how to resolve disputes function more effectively, even as they work through the difficulties of moving between and beyond natural self-interest to common purpose. Genuine interdependence, a hallmark of successful collaborative networks, rarely results without members risking loss of turf, power, prestige, even money or a long-prized place in a system that needs changing.

Featured in this month’s Catalyst newsletter is the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, just one example of 17 networks whose leaders have sought out Community Partners as their network home. They value the sort of “neutral Switzerland” that sponsorship through Community Partners allows when it comes to staffing the network, managing funds and getting excellent guidance.

And did I mention that we wrote what is regarded as one of the best playbooks around covering critical aspects of networks? Check out Networks that Work: A Practitioner’s Guide to Managing Networked Action (Second Edition) which I wrote with Myrna Mandell, Ph.D. a few years ago. You’ll do good better for the effort.