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How do I gauge the potential for starting or joining a network?

Whether you’re thinking of starting a new network or supporting one that exists, you’ll need to gauge how much potential there is for it to succeed. Some funders set the bar high, supporting networks only if they are already strong enough to develop without a funder’s help. Others are more willing to invest in providing the incubation necessary to catalyze latent potential. Wherever you choose to set your bar, here are four steps for evaluating how much potential exists for a new network to start or an existing one to grow.

Step 1: Scan your landscape

Find as much existing activity as possible that you could build on or tie together. Learn as much as you can about the current state of play: what long-term aspirations are held by whom, what work is underway, who holds different kinds of expertise, what planning is already in place, what planning should be in place, and identify any collaborations that are already in motion. Think laterally: take a broad view, look across sectors to account for the many different people and organizations that might be working on the topic but be off of your usual radar. Look deep, reaching beyond the “usual suspects” who are the best-credentialed or the best-known, in search of the people who have the deepest expertise or are doing the most substantive work. A good network of trusted advisors can be great asset in doing this work.

Step 2: Look for people who are itching for change

Look for people who have a reason to care about the type of change you have in mind. Find those who genuinely share your same level of commitment. If you’re evaluating a network that already exists, probe to see whether the people involved have the same intentions and commitment as you do. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find a group that’s already started working together and just needs a boost to enable continued collaboration. Look for those who may the same passion but aren’t yet connected with each other. Some of the most powerful networks have been created out of situations where the actors were quite far from collaborating with each other at the start, but were brought together in a way that uncovered the adjacent possible.
A Deloitte Survey of the Fortune 500 mapped the distribution of firms across four typical ways that companies relate to social impact and found that many smaller companies place social impact more central to their strategy. To read more about specific types of companies who are “itching to change,” see PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks.

Step 3: Outline a mutually attractive value proposition

No matter what the benefit of working together, every person at the table has to have a reason to be there that advances their personal or organizational priorities. What’s more, they need to see that they’ll get at least as much as they have to give. Even if they find the prospect of working together extremely appealing, that won’t be enough if they don’t have a strong reason to keep the project high on their priority list. Find out how to look at this collaborative effort through the eyes of each participant, and look for ways that the value exchange can be a net positive for each one.

The researchers [involved in producing new rice varieties] really did get excited about the idea that their discovery might be taken by the Foundation’s network and wind up benefiting millions of poor people in developing countries. There was a real sense of wanting to contribute, because it was a goal that everybody felt good about. Gary Toenniessen, the Rockefeller Foundation

A foundation’s perch and the wide lens it can apply to an issue can provide insights, but it’s important to remember that many of its nonprofit partners and grantees are rightly focused on their narrow missions and don’t have the time or capacity to take a step back to examine strategies or data beyond their current scope.Jennifer Pereira, writing in Collaboration and Foundation Leadership

Read more about how a network can outline an attractive value proposition to a private company in PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks, with a focus on “Describe the business value this network can deliver” (Page 24) and “Craft the network’s story for a business audience” (Page 29).

Step 4: Scout for potential co-funders

Look hard for fellow funders who share your outlook and level of motivation to address the issue at hand. Co-funding might sound counter-intuitive; it is not standard practice in grantmaking. Also, you may encounter the commonplace bias to start something new rather than support an existing or shared effort.

The merits of co-funding

  • Greater resources (financial and otherwise) for kickstarting the work
  • Greater stability in the case of changing priorities at your institution
  • Greater insight & creativity to shape the network and help it find its footing
  • Brands the effort as a collaboration, making it more attractive for other funders to join in the future

The merits of solo funding

  • Greater autonomy in shaping the network to fit your vision
  • Stronger tie between your funding and any success that the network achieves

If you do find potential co-funders, be sure to look beneath the surface at what could bring them to the table and put effort into negotiating the terms of their engagement. It can help to bring them in early, so that the idea isn’t viewed as something you own. Power dynamics can come into play, since comparatively larger funders may see less incentive to work as part of a group, or may want their influence to reflect their funding clout. Find out their vision for the initiative, how this work would fit into their broader strategy, and how they imagine measuring success. This will give you the information you need to acknowledge and accommodate their varying needs from the start. Most importantly, look for signs that not only the individual but also their organization are ready for the different demands of network funding.

The downside [of funding a network alone] is not only financial, but that you have nobody else speaking truth to you. Foundation people don’t get a lot of critical feedback from outsiders, but other donors can hold foundations accountable, to some extent.Stefan Nachuk, the Rockefeller Foundation