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What can a network do?

Beyond the shape and size that results from their general design, every network serves one or more functions in helping its participants achieve a larger goal. Think of a network like a Swiss Army knife that can be reconfigured to meet the task at hand. We have found seven functions that networks can serve, drawing on recent findings and our own research.

To learn more about the specific types of social impact networks and the various functions they engage in to drive business value, see “Five kinds of social impact networks that deliver business value” (Page 8) in PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks.

Few networks serve all functions, but many serve more than one, and the degree of functionality required typically scales with the complexity of the challenge they are designed to address. Some networks only need to weave social ties or access new and diverse perspectives; but if you’ve got a bold goal—like reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050 across 8 states—you’ll probably need to build in more advanced functionality over time.

We’ve arranged the seven functions below in order from those that require the least alignment among the participants to those that require the most. Click on each one to learn more and to see examples of what that function looks like in practice.

(If you’re interested in other ways of thinking about a network’s functions, we recommend the frameworks from Global Solution Networks and the book Connecting to Change the World.)

1. Spur individual action

Network Function #1

Could you catalyze widespread behavior change with a gentle nudge and the right resources?

A network can provide the structure through which a large number of people can engage in an issue that would be challenging to do in a more formal hierarchy. It is particularly effective when the goal is to encourage individuals to take action and use whatever resources are at their disposal. This is especially true when the people in question need only a small amount of structure, encouragement, and support to get moving in the right direction. It can be powerful and cost-effective when executed through online coordination tools, which can be augmented with in-person convening. (This function is closely related to access new and diverse perspectives.) A network that is successful in this work can be highly effective at sparking individuals’ motivation to change their behavior or participate in collective action.


2. Weave social ties

Network Function #2

Do you want to help a group of people strengthen or build relationships?

A network can provide a setting in which participants meet, get acquainted, learn about each other, and form their own connections. This can be valuable when certain people or organizations are isolated from one another and simply forming relationships would be a helpful part of the systemic intervention you want to advance. The potential for a network to serve this function exists when the group in question would not normally meet but could be convinced to see value in meeting one another. A network that succeeds in this work can lay the foundation for many kinds of mutual assistance, enabling it to develop additional functions. One common next step is facilitating information exchange and peer learning; another is for participants to start other organizations or networks of their own.


Related terms: This function is can be loosely considered a subset of what is described as a connectivity network.

“A good network will beget other networks. And you should not see this as a bad thing.”Karl Brown, the Rockefeller Foundation


3. Access new and diverse perspectives

Network Function #3

Do you want to get new thinking on an important question by sparking dialogue within a diverse group?

A network can create a structure for engaging with a group who can provide a diverse range of ideas, information, and perspectives. Rather than soliciting this information one-on-one, convenings and online platforms can be used to provide a format where groups can provide input into a decision or offer points of view that may add needed dimension to a challenge. Networks deployed to serve this function alone are typically created on a temporary basis to serve a short-term purpose, but this function can also be served on an ongoing basis for work that needs to be conducted over the course of years. Unlike standard polling or focus groups, a network that is successful in this regard can create meaningful dialogue, where the people providing input can have a real exchange with one another and with the people making the decision. 

“Diversity is really important in supporting networks, especially if you’re trying to build power. [In one network,] an important form of diversity was geography. Having groups involved that were state-focused brought a different perspective to the group’s conversation. For example, we’d be talking about communications, a national group would say, “let’s say this,” and someone else would say, “Well, we can’t actually say that in Missouri, but this is what we say.” That diversity made all of the conversations richer.” Sarah Bell, The 11th Hour Project


4. Facilitate information exchange and peer learning

Network Function #4

Is there a group of people doing similar work who could benefit by learning from each other?

A network can create a setting where participants learn from each other, using structured and unstructured formats to help them identify common areas of practice and share information and advice about the best ways to achieve a given goal. This can be particularly valuable for a group of people who are doing similar work in different organizations or sectors, if they are relatively isolated in their work or are working on a new problem and need a community of peers to learn from. It can also be useful for combining complementary specialties, such as the people creating technology with researchers or others who have insight into its potential applications. A network is often successful in this regard by building on an already-established ability to weave social ties, opening up opportunities to create shared understanding of an issue or design and prototype new solutions.


Related terms: This function is closely related to what is described as a connectivity network or a knowledge network.

“Even in bad systems, there are a number of good people and organizations. But they often don’t know each other, thus there are few, if any, no mutual support systems.   In addition,  there are few rewards, and sometimes sanctions,  for people who are both motivated and progressive in their thinking.”Stefan Nachuk, Rockefeller Foundation

“Networks are both for sharing the positive experiences and for sharing the mistakes so that others can avoid repeating them.”Helena Monteiro, Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS)


5. Create shared understanding in order to align action

Network Function #5

Could new insight emerge if you brought together people who work on the same problem but from different angles?

A network can knit together disparate vantage points on a social system, build agreement about how it operates, and ultimately provide the container for coordinated strategic planning that aligns the participants’ goals. The early-stage conversations can be challenging, requiring the group to iron out differences in definitions, ideas, and language. These conversations often yield new insight into the root causes of a problem, the common beliefs shared by the participants, and the ways that they could potentially align their work or collaborate on shared efforts. When a network succeeds at building that agreement and strategic coordination, each participating organization’s activities can begin to add up to a coherent large-scale effort, while still leaving each organization the freedom to execute its work independently.


Related terms: This function is closely related to what is described as an alignment network, and is very similar to the definition of a collective impact network.

“We saw all kinds of programs expanding their models because they realized they were just one piece of the puzzle and they had to think about partnership in a different way. Rather than require every organization [in our venture philanthropy portfolio] to figure out which partnerships they individually need, we thought it would be better to bring a collective together, creating the environment of trust and providing the space to figure it out amongst themselves.” – Shruti Sehra, New Profit, Inc.

“A network allows a broad range of people and organizations to find a shared framework from which to act. Members of a network are unlikely to agree on each and every philosophical point, but they can use their relationships and sense of shared purpose to coordinate actions capable of producing social change.” – Douglas Easterling, author


6. Design and prototype new solutions

Network Function #6

Could the right group generate a valuable set of experiments to launch?

A network can bring together combinations of talent that are uniquely suited to look for new solutions (rather than extend existing interventions), sketch designs, create prototypes, and test them with target audiences. This work builds on strong alignment within a group on its shared goals and highest-potential avenues for creating impact. It is particularly effective when the participants have the commitment and the capacity to engage in joint projects, which is often built through first establishing the functionality of weaving social ties and/or facilitating information exchange and peer learning. It is also at its most powerful when the members of the group come from sufficiently different backgrounds or disciplines that they will be able to see possibilities that might not otherwise emerge. When a network succeeds at bringing together people who have complementary insights to work on a problem, it can provide the ideal environment for uncovering innovations that live in the adjacent possible.


Related terms: This function is most closely related to the practice of social labs (described recently in three different sources). It is also related to what is described as a knowledge network, except that it can go beyond creating new ideas and to include prototyping & testing.

“Highly successful collaboratives – the ones that generate synergistic, communitywide impacts – do more than align the activities of members. They also find smarter, more comprehensive ways of addressing the issues that are at the root of whatever problem they are working to solve.” Douglas Easterling, professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine


7. Launch a series of joint initiatives

Network Function #7

Are there organizations that have a recurring need to collaborate on short-term projects?

A network can provide the standing infrastructure to make it relatively easy for participants to develop initiatives that advance mutually-held goals, assemble the staff capacity, and pursue them as a group. One common form for such initiatives is an advocacy campaign to increase pressure on governments, corporations, and other institutions to adopt a certain position or policy proposal. But it can be any joint effort that draws on the capacity, voice, relationships, and other assets resident within the group. Organizations often join in campaigns and gradually build closer direct relationships with one another, but launching each campaign still requires starting nearly from scratch. When a network succeeds at serving this function, it can provide the standing infrastructure for taking collective action when an opportunity or challenge arises that concerns the people and organizations involved.

“Our members treasure the ability to form groups to work on specific platforms or issues that they are interested in, whether those groups are permanent or temporary.” – Helena Monteiro, Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS)