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Why are networks relevant to my work?

Networks are being used today by change agents across fields and sectors to create larger-scale solutions to social challenges than can be delivered by a single organization. That scale is accomplished by connecting independent actors in ways that are flexible, adaptable, resilient, scalable, and decentralized.

For more on networks that are engaging both private and public sector actors to address social challenges, see PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks.

In our interviews, we heard grantmakers name a number of specific ways that networks for social impact accelerate and amplify the change they seek:

  • Networks allow a grantmaker to set broader ambitions—and tackle a larger piece of a problem than could be addressed by supporting individual grantees.
  • Networks diversify a grantmaker’s risk, spreading bets across the work of many actors rather than relying on one organization.
  • Networks spur smart coordination: they allow organizations to team up with others to tackle an issue of shared concern.
  • Networks build the resilience of problem solvers in any ecosystem: they help create meaningful relationships so that when new challenges or opportunities arise, the collective can respond.
  • Networks enable innovation, creating a venue where it is possible to bring many new and different voices to the table.

The word “network” has become a general-purpose term that has seen a huge rise in popularity with the spread of connective technology. It’s a term at risk of being so overused that we become numb to what it means. There are many kinds of networks for many kinds of purposes. The networks that are relevant to grantmaking are social impact networks, comprised of relatively autonomous actors, who are either pursuing individual goals within a shared system or working in concert to address complex social problems. These actors can be drawn from the private, public or social sectors to create truly cross-sector collaboratives. (See the collection of Story Snapshots for examples of what they look like in practice.)

A network is a collection of expertise that adds up to more than the sum of the parts, allowing a transfer of knowledge and materials that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Gary Toenniessen, Rockefeller Foundation

These networks have been called many names over the years. Each term for them describes a particular approach that is useful in slightly different settings, although they are often applied loosely in practice. VISA founder Dee Hock famously coined the term chaordic organizations in 2000; Pete Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland recently offered the term generative social-impact networks; at the global scale, author Don Tapscott calls them global solution networks, while Steve Waddell writes about them as global action networks. Some terms refer to focused applications of the network form, such as collective impact and social labs. Other terms describe not the network itself but the type of leadership required to build networks: Jane Wei-Skillern uses the term network mindset; Peter Senge and his coauthors describe the skillset of a system leader; and, we at Monitor Institute have described both the art of creating aligned action and the mentality of working wikily. >(These are related but separate from forms such as movements, coalitions or associations.)

“If we can design our grant portfolios to reflect natural living systems which are all very diverse, but very much connected and therefore resilient, then we’re going to have better outcomes in the long run.” Sarah Bell, The 11th Hour Project

Social impact networks are highly relevant to the work of grantmakers, who are particularly well-suited to play key roles in their formation and development. In network parlance, a grantmaker is a natural ‘network hub,’ forming ties with many people in an issue space as she gathers information, builds and rebuilds a point of view about how to achieve programmatic goals, and finds the best grantee partners.

What is new today is the increasing number of social impact networks that operate independently of grantmakers, developing a powerful enough life of their own that they can become grantees themselves. When actors find reason to pursue their individual goals within a shared system, or achieve sufficient alignment that they can work in concert to achieve shared goals, the structure that enables their collective effort becomes a crucial lever of change. Where grantmakers have traditionally supported organizations as the unit of analysis for driving social impact, today there are increasing opportunities to achieve impact by supporting networks that link organizations or people together into powerful problem solving collectives.

Our trustees were saying, ‘I know our individual grants make a difference, but are we really making a difference at a community level or at a systems level?’Tracy Sawicki, The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation