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What network design would be the most useful?

If you think that your problem is a likely fit for using a network, you are now ready to create an initial hypothesis about what the right size and shape of network might be. What design will be most effective for the problem you’re trying to solve depends on who will be involved, and many other details. But understanding the range of design options is a good place to start.

Our research has found eight particularly common ways that networks can vary to suit different circumstances. At this early stage of your thinking you may be able to rule out certain configurations. For example, you might be certain that you are only interested in engaging with a network that is place-based, or one that has cross-sectoral representation.

You may not know yet whether it will better serve your goals to start a new network, help a network develop, or transform an existing network. Initial ideas here are helpful for moving your thinking forward, but you may want to revisit your ideas once you begin thinking in more detail about what that network could do, how it can evolve over time, what support and leadership it will need, and whether you and your organization are ready. Hold these ideas lightly: network design choices are best kept fluid, particularly as you begin reaching out to the field to gauge a network’s real potential.



The extremes of each of these eight spectra are described in greater detail below:


There are hundreds of individuals who are active participants in the network.
There are a small number of people who are active participants in the network.
Many participants, if not all, make their own independent choices about what and how to contribute to the network.
Most or all of the participants’ contributions to the network are made in accordance with the requests of a decision making body (executive committee, steering committee, etc).
There are no explicitly-stated leadership roles within the network, or boundaries around the nature of different participants’ contributions.
Membership and leadership are explicitly defined and contained within specific bounds, often with multiple tiers of membership and official leadership positions.
The participants’ reason for connecting is to accomplish a goal in the near term, after which the participants might continue but will need to adopt a new purpose.
The participants’ reason for connecting is to address a systemic challenge, which typically requires sustained efforts over years or decades. Even if the participants change, the network continues to achieve the goal.
The participants are aiming to accomplish very similar overarching goals, giving them many good reasons to connect and collaborate.
The participants have many different overarching goals, giving them only one or a few good reasons to connect and collaborate.
The participants are highly homogeneous, working in the same sector, issue area, or industry, with similar organizational structures.
The participants are highly heterogeneous, working in a variety of sectors, issue areas, or industries, with a variety of organizational structures.
Participants’ motivation for taking part in the network is primarily to accomplish a goal, whether that is their own goal or a collective goal.
Participants’ motivation for taking part in the network is primarily to access information that will be useful in their own independent work.
The participants are located in the same metropolitan area (at the extreme of the spectrum), in the same state (halfway to the center), or in the same region (in the center).
The participants are spread around the globe (at the extreme of the spectrum) or located in the same country (halfway to the center).
Read story sketch

The Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage

Many nations now share the goal of providing universal health coverage (UHC), but as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Each system for providing UHC is a custom-fit creation of laws, regulations, market mechanisms, and government oversight at multiple levels. In 2009 a group of global health funders held a meeting in Geneva with healthcare system leaders from four low and middle income countries, academics, and technical experts to discuss ways to advance towards universal health coverage, and what emerged was the potential for a network as the solution.

This story sketch explores how The Rockefeller Foundation engaged with the group to form a network focused on two goals: finding new ways to identify common technical problems in the move towards UHC, and creating commonly-applicable solutions that could be customized in each member country.

The Rockefeller Foundation: Smoothing the path to universal health coverage

The Global Impact Investing Network

Impact investing is now a growing industry, but in 2007 it was a collection of disparate financial innovations that went by many different names and had no comprehensive supportive infrastructure. This story sketch describes how The Rockefeller Foundation organized the world’s first network of impact investors and then launched the Global Impact Investing Network as a lasting backbone to grow the movement.

The Rockefeller Foundation: Building a backbone to accelerate impact investing

The Rockefeller Foundation’s molecular biology initiative

Funders have been engaging with networks long before today’s connective technologies made it easier to maintain relationships at a distance. In the 1930s, a program officer at The Rockefeller Foundation named Warren Weaver led an initiative to apply the tools of physics and chemistry to the many unanswered questions of biology. This story sketch describes how Weaver’s intensive relationship-building among researchers and targeted use of funding was successful in launching the new field of molecular biology.

The Rockefeller Foundation: Bridging disciplines to launch a new field in biology

StriveTogether and the Cradle to Career Network

Sometimes one successful network can act as the springboard for another. StrivePartnership in Cincinnati first gained national recognition for building a “collective impact” network that knit together a single cradle-to-career pipeline out of the many service providers who work with students to improve their achievement. When the success of StrivePartnership sparked interest from other cities in taking a similar approach, Living Cities supported pilots to test what it would look like to replicate the model. The success of those pilots led KnowledgeWorks, one of StrivePartnership’s founding supporters, to create the Cradle to Career Network and form a new subsidiary organization, StriveTogether, as its national hub. This story sketch examines how Living Cities and KnowledgeWorks came to see the importance of helping StrivePartnership take this next step and what role StriveTogether could play in supporting and expanding the new network.

StriveTogether: Taking a place-based network to national scale

The Rockefeller Foundation’s international network for rice biotechnology

Like most organizations, scientific research teams are effective at pursuing their independent goals, but struggle to collaborate across disciplines, and are often disconnected from the on-the-ground challenges that their work could help to address. In the late 1970s, program officers at The Rockefeller Foundation (the “Foundation”) saw both of these barriers standing in the way of progress towards what they believed was a tremendous opportunity: using the new technologies of genomics and genetic engineering to help the world’s lowest-income consumers by creating a variety of rice that was dramatically more resilient and nutritious.

The Foundation had over thirty years of experience in agricultural science, having supported traditional cross-breeding research to produce improved staple crops since the 1940s, working in partnership with Ford Foundation and others to spur the “Green Revolution.” The Foundation’s program officers saw the potential for biotechnology to make even greater strides, but they also saw that the work had to happen across a disparate collection of research teams that were scattered across many different countries, institutions, and scientific fields. This story sketch explores how the Foundation chose to make an audacious long-term bet in the early 1980s, committing to spend 15 years providing those teams with the connectivity they needed to give the Global South a better kind of rice.

The Rockefeller Foundation: A long-term bet on scientific breakthrough

The Reimagine Learning network

On the path to social change there often comes a point when those in the trenches of a particular issue–whether funder or practitioner—ask a different kind of question about scale. It’s a shift away from “How can I scale this organization or program?” to a more challenging question: “How can I scale impact?” Asking this question allows the aperture to broaden, raising the possibility of working through collaborative networks to drive broader impact than is possible working alone.

That is just the kind of question a group of funders started to ask several years ago that led to the eventual formation of Reimagine Learning, now a network of over 100 social entrepreneurs, funders, policy makers, researchers, and academics to create learning environments that unleash the talents and creativity of all students. This story sketch focuses on how that group of funders realized the opportunity for Reimagine Learning and arrived at the point where they were ready to engage: how they reframed the problem, laid the groundwork for a co-creative partnership, and dedicated the capacity necessary to making the collective work a success.

Reimagine Learning: Bridging silos and creating a new vision for learning

The RE-AMP Network

A significant challenge that a network can take on is shifting a fragmented group of organizations into a more coordinated effort that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. For over a decade, that has been the goal of the RE-AMP network’s effort to coordinate the organizations fighting to cut carbon emissions across the Midwest. Since its founding in 2004, it has expanded to link the efforts of over 165 nonprofits and funders working across eight states, and can boast both significant policy wins and a strong infrastructure for driving the work forward.

Not only does RE-AMP have an impressive track record, but there is much to learn from how it evolved, from one modestly endowed foundation gathering a founding group of twelve nonprofits and seven funders into a powerful network for social impact. This story sketch explores how the sustained efforts of one funder successfully coordinated intent and aligned action across a diverse group of actors throughout an ecosystem, seeding a network that grew across a region.

RE-AMP: Networking climate advocates across eight states to cut carbon emissions

The Levi Strauss Foundation’s Pioneers in Justice network

Engaging with a network is an entrepreneurial project, and the formation of the Pioneers in Justice network shows how. Levi Strauss Foundation set its sights on “moving the dial” through a more systemic approach to its social justice grantmaking. With this aspiration in mind, it encountered a nascent peer-learning network of social justice leaders who needed just the kind of support that the foundation was positioned to provide. This story sketch recounts how the foundation was able to make good on that combination of intention and timing, finding a role to play in providing both financial and backbone support that enabled these leaders to guide their organizations in powerful new directions.

Pioneers in Justice: Enabling social justice leaders to transform their organizations

The Energy Action Network of Vermont

In the fall of 2011, the State of Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan featured a bold new goal: moving the state to 90% reliance on renewable energy by 2050. To many Americans scanning the headlines that announcement may have sounded like a logical extension of the state’s reputation for progressive politics; but the advocates involved in securing the victory knew that it was not only hard-won, but reflected a radical transformation of the dialogue on energy policy at the state level. This story sketch details how that transformation was enabled a new social impact network, the Energy Action Network of Vermont, catalyzed and developed through three years of hands-on engagement by a small local family foundation.

Energy Action Network: Finding the path to renewable energy in Vermont

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Disease Surveillance Networks initiative

When grantmakers realize how collaboration can address a social challenge in one location, they can find themselves compelled to explore how the network model can be replicated in other areas. That is what happened when grantmakers at The Rockefeller Foundation (the “Foundation”) began investigating the problem of pandemics in the late 1990s, concerned that the rise in globalization was increasing the threat of pandemics to the world’s poorest populations. How you stop the spread of pandemics is a confounding problem, especially for national governments. Diseases have no respect for political boundaries, national treaties or organizational silos, hitching rides through the legal (and illegal) traffic of people, livestock, and wildlife that is constantly moving across borders. This story sketch illustrates how the Foundation responded by supporting the formation of one of the world’s first regional disease surveillance networks and then using what they learned to launch and support similar networks in other regions around the world.

The Rockefeller Foundation: Containing pandemics by sharing information