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What tools can help me support and lead a network?

As you get started, it may be helpful to know what tools are available to support network building. Remember: it isn’t the tools that matter so much as the craftsman, so don’t expect any of these tools to take the place of human knowledge and relationships. But tools can help build knowledge and relationships by making it easier for participants to understand the problem they’re tackling or to collaborate across long distances. Consider whether or not your network has a need for any of the following tools (and if that requires bringing in outside support / facilitation).

Technology Tools

Exploring what technology might be useful in working with a network can open what feels like a Pandora’s box. So many tools now exist for communication, collaboration, coordination, and content management that the choices can be overwhelming. At the time of this guide’s release, the most up to date list for social-sector collaboration is Harnessing Collaborative Technologies, published in fall of 2013 by Monitor Institute and the Foundation Center. It offers an interactive tool and an accompanying report for identifying the right technology to use for the collaborative work you want to accomplish. The tool and report were written for funders looking to collaborate with other funders, but it is equally relevant to the collaboration that happens in social impact networks.But before you familiarize yourself with the range of tools, ground yourself in the needs you’re trying to serve and the specific comfort levels and preferences that the participants have with regard to different technologies.

Bearing that in mind, the following sections of Harnessing Collaborative Technologies are particularly relevant to social impact networks:

  • Collaboration diagnostics
    These tools help partners assess the health of their current collaboratives.
  • Communications and Meetings
    These tools cover the gamut of online communication technologies—chat, conference calls, video calls, webinars, virtual meeting spaces, and blogs.
  • Comprehensive Collaboration Workspaces
    These tools combine many basic tools (file sharing, calendar sharing, member profiles, communications, wikis, etc.) into more multifaceted, all-in-one solutions.
  • Content Management Systems
    These tools help web developers to build feature-rich websites that enable user editing.
  • Data Gathering
    These tools make it easy to collect data, solicit feedback, or ask a question to a large group of people.
  • Data Organizing
    These tools allow people to curate and share with others their reading lists, bookmarked webpages, mind maps, and other schemes for organizing information.
  • File Sharing and Collaborative Writing
    These tools make it easy for many people to share and edit documents.
  • Innovation Management
    These tools support group brainstorming and innovation.
  • Joint Decision Making
    These tools allow many people to easily weigh in on group decisions.
  • Project Management
    These tools help manage collaborative projects and keep group members informed about roles, responsibilities, and timelines.
  • Scheduling and Calendar Sharing
    These tools make it easier to schedule meetings with many participants and to keep groups informed about events of shared interest.
  • Social Networking and Online Community
    These tools connect people to others with whom they have something in common.

Good design begins with the user… You can’t lead with tools. Tools are just a means for solving a problem, so you have to back into them by starting with people and their real needs.Cynthia Gibson, writing in Funder Collaboratives: Why and How Funders Work Together

Process Tools

Whether it’s to get to know one another, the problem, or the possible solutions, there are an incredibly wide range of exercises and methods available to help a network do the work it needs to do as a group. They range from brief, small-scale ways to engage with the group in a meeting to much more intensive, broader-reaching processes that can take a lot of time and deep engagement. (If you’re interested in learning more, see the list of sources at the bottom of the page for additional reading on the range of group process tools available.) Choosing the right tool for the right moment, and leading the group through the experience, is central to the roles of weaving the network and convening the network. That is an art beyond the scope of this material, but we can get you started with just a few common exercises that we have seen to be particularly useful.


In-person convenings are a powerful tool for strengthening a network and accomplishing work together. They can be used by whomever is playing the role of convening the network at any stage in a network’s life to help participants form connections, generate alignment, and/or push forward on the production of joint efforts. For more details on the practice of designing convenings, see the guidebook GATHER: The Art and Science of Effective Convening.

Social Network Analysis (SNA)

This is the process of capturing and charting the relationships between people or organizations within a network. It is typically used in networks when it is important to form new relationships between certain people or groups, and to track progress against those goals over time. A survey is sent out to the participants in the network to gather data on the relationships they share with one another, and the relationships they would like to have, and SNA tools are used to graph that information. (This is particularly useful in networks that serve the function of weaving social ties and/or facilitating information exchange and peer learning.) Two tools that are very well adapted to this type of SNA are Kumu and NodeXL. For a basic introduction to using SNA in a network, see this overview.

Stakeholder Mapping

This refers to method of cataloguing the people involved in your challenge, categorizing them according to their ability to influence the social system that surrounds that challenge, and determining how to engage with them. Because it is context-specific, this is often done informally, such as by simply plotting stakeholders against dimensions that matter to your network. (For example, you might plot stakeholders on a matrix according to strength of interest and ability to influence your goal.) This work can be particularly helpful in informing questions of who should be involved and who the network should seek to influence, which tend to arise in networks that serve the function of coordinating goals and strategies and/or pursuing a series of short-term joint initiatives.

System Mapping

Also known as systems diagramming, system mapping has many uses but is particularly useful in a network setting to represent a set of beliefs about what causes what to create a social challenge. Its visualization methods can be used to chart someone’s answers to a question like, “what is it exactly that causes infant mortality?” This can be very useful in networks that serve the functions of facilitating information exchange and peer learning, creating shared understanding of an issue, and/or coordinating goals and strategies. System maps can represent different points of view about the causes and consequences of a problem, making it clear where a group agrees and where it does not. And, once a group finds agreement, it can crystallize that set of ideas in a way that anchors future conversation and makes it easier to communicate them to new participants. Most importantly, it can make it possible to survey the causes and consequences of a problem all in one place, enabling the group to see new possibilities for influencing a complex challenge. This video offers a basic introduction, as does this series of posts.

Learning Journeys

These are custom-designed field trips that educate a group of people about something relevant to their decision-making process. These tend to be particularly valuable in situations where taking the group to see a place and meet people will help them understand something through in-person experience that would be hard to understand in the abstract, something that is often helpful for networks that aim to facilitate information exchange and peer learning.

Action Research

Action research is the term for working with a group to look for ways to improve how they do their work. It typically involves developing questions, observing work processes in action, reflecting on what was seen, and searching for improvements to implement. This is particularly helpful in networks that serve the function of facilitating information exchange and peer learning, since those networks are often focused on sharing and improving best practices, and it can provide input into the work of designing and prototyping new solutions.

Scenario Planning

Scenarios are stories about how driving forces in the environment surrounding an actor or a group of actors can shape the future of their operating environment. It can be a powerful exercise for questioning deeply-ingrained assumptions about what the future will hold, as well as for imagining how it can be shaped in a particular direction. Scenarios can help network participants see their surrounding context in a new light, which is particularly helpful for networks aiming to create shared understanding of an issue or coordinate goals and strategies. For detailed guidance on the use of scenarios for social change, see Monitor Institute’s What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits and Adam Kahane’s Transformative Scenario Planning.

Evaluation Tools

Evaluating networks is different from evaluating organizations, in that it can rarely involve measurement of more than process outcomes, particularly for networks that have not developed beyond the Knit stage. Even if a network develops an organization-like degree of formal structure, top-down leadership, and clear strategic planning, it is often impossible to draw clear distinctions between the beneficiary outcomes that can fairly be attributed to the network itself as opposed to its participants. Even more importantly, process outcomes can be quite effective at celebrating participants’ contribution, helping to build their motivation, whereas the level of effort required to quantify beneficiary outcomes can easily go beyond what participants are willing to contribute. If you are playing the backbone role of supporting measurement and learning, the there are two types of tools that you can use:

  • You can measure the network’s connectivity, in terms of the relationships among its participants and any formal structure it has adopted. (Social network analysis is a common tool here, described above.)
  • You can measure the network’s network health, in terms of its access to resources, its infrastructure, and its value proposition to participants. (This scorecard provides one example of the specific questions to ask.)

For more details on how to go about evaluating a network, two useful resources are The State of Network Evaluation – A Guide (2014) and Network Evaluation: Cultivating Healthy Networks for Social Change (2011).

Traditional outcome measures of success, established in advance of action, must be subordinated [in a network setting] to much more flexible assessment strategies. This in turn emphasizes the need for multiple strategies, and the importance of active learning processes to support the change. Steve Waddell, writing in The State of the Field

Especially in the first few years, it is critical to set measures of success that motivate the behaviors that strengthen trust and encourage generous exchange and collaboration, including expectations for timing of measurable outcomes.Beth Tener, writing in Funders’ Role in Catalyzing Collaboration in Networks (or Undermining It)