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What are the alternatives to a network?

Engaging with social impact networks addressed in this guide can be done in many situations in many ways. They have distinctive strengths when used well. But they also have challenges that are inherent to their form.

In a network it is more challenging to establish decision rights, define membership and create accountability. It is also more challenging to establish a clear and attractive value exchange among the people involved and to motivate those people to invest a meaningful amount of time. As a result, there are also many situations where a network is simply not the right tool.

If you suspect that you might be able to make headway without forming a new network, or supporting an existing network, consider whether these alternatives might serve your purposes. But also consider whether it could be worth investing additional effort in understanding the nature of the issue and the landscape of actors involved–sometimes the opportunity to build a network is not immediately obvious and requires some initial discovery.


Your options include:

Support a single individual / organization

Support a person or an existing organization

Form a standard grantmaker/grantee relationship in which the grantmaker provides funding, capacity-building, and/or other forms of direct personal involvement to enable a single individual or organization to accomplish a particular goal.

Create an independent organization

Create a typical free-standing nonprofit, operating foundation, or corporation that has dedicated leadership and staff. Whether they are associations (as described below) or deliver a different type of service, sometimes the work that needs to be done requires the dedicated resources and executive vision that are the hallmarks of an effective stand-alone entity.

Gather a group

Hold a series of meetings

Host in-person or virtual gatherings focused on moving through an agenda (rather than doing collaborative group work).

Organize a conference

Provide an event where a group can give and hear presentations, ask questions of speakers, and form new relationships as they see fit.

Host one or more convenings

Convenings are large-group working sessions, typically composed of up to 80 diverse stakeholders who represent a range of perspectives on a topic, often from different organizations. They are designed to draw on all participants to generate insight and action beyond what any single actor could achieve on his or her own, even when the participants are not part of a network. For more details, see GATHER: The Art and Science of Effective Convening, described in this brief video:


Support a different kind of partnership

(Many of the principles from this guide apply to this work as well.)

Informally connect pairs or trios

Quite frequently there are opportunities for learning and collaboration among two or three organizations that have no need to expand to a larger group. These can happen on their own, they can be catalyzed by conversation at a convening, or they can form out of an introduction that you make intentionally. Two ways to encourage and sustain these collaborations are by offering small grants to start new collaborations or by providing a prize for collaborations that begin on their own.

Support an association

These groups are organized mainly to foster connections and provide their members with various services. In associations, members don’t necessarily develop powerful, enduring relationships and collaborations and the association staff, not the members, do most of the work.

Support a coalition or alliance

These are campaign-specific temporary alignments of organizations formed to achieve a specific objective that usually disband as soon as the campaign is completed. While they are networks in the general sense of the term, their short lifespan means that it is less necessary to define their function and participants’ roles as clearly as in the social impact networks discussed here.

Support a public-private partnership

These partnerships are formed between government and private sector organizations to deliver specific services or benefits. They are often targeted narrowly, such as developing a particular drug to fight a single disease, and usually don’t engage the full set of stakeholders that affect the issue, such as the potential drug’s distribution system.

“Collaboration is really messy and difficult. There are reasons why it’s difficult for funders to work together and reasons why it’s difficult for organizations to collaborative effectively. It’s hard, and it takes a lot of persistence and a lot of flexibility. When you get a group of smart people in a room who have a lot of different ideas, you have to let go and trust that the work will go in the right direction.” Jennifer Berman, Energy Action Network of Vermont

“Ask yourself: do you truly believe in the power of a network? It’s going to take time and resources and lots of frustration. You have to have reason to believe in the value of a network in order to be willing to go through all of that.” Michelle Gilliard, Venture Philanthropy Partners