You’ve added an item to your reading list. Continue adding items from around the guide, or export your Reading List

what's in this guide?

Am I ready to work with a network – and is my organization ready?

One source of a network’s power comes from participants relating as peers, not from a certain position in an organizational hierarchy. This means that when a funder engages with a network, she too should do so as a peer. The four principles below are good guardrails for keeping your relationship with a network healthy and productive.

See PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks, to dive deeper into the topic of communication and how choosing the correct language is an imperative for healthy network relationships (“Language matters: bridging the collaborative divide through smart conversations,” Page 6).

Even if you follow all of the “rules” for network engagement, some elements might not feel natural at first. It is important to understand your own comfort level with adopting a network mindset—and particularly your organization’s willingness to support you in it.

“Imagine giving someone a manual on how to hit a baseball. Shoulders square, feet in this position, eyes up. You can know every rule, and there will still be some people who can hit a fastball the first time and some people who can’t.” Stefan Nachuk, formerly of The Rockefeller Foundation

PRINCIPLE 1: Focus on the common ground

Your organization and any particular program you serve has its own specific goals, and engaging with a network doesn’t mean you have to stop looking at the world through that lens. But what it does require is finding exactly where your goals for addressing the larger problem intersect with those of the other participants, and focusing on the work that will advance that intersection. It helps to think of the work you do with the network as being bounded to whatever common ground it is that you share with the group. This helps to guard against seeing more value in a certain direction when it serves your organization’s broader goals but not those of the network.

“Everybody has to get really good at understanding they don’t have all the answers. It needs to be, ‘Here’s the problem, here’s what we bring to it, and where we add the most value. Here is where there are gaps that others can fill better than we can.” Jane Wei-Skillern, Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership, Haas School of Business, University of California Berkeley

“It is challenging and even unnatural for organizations with distinct missions to come together and develop a shared agenda, especially one that involves systems change.” Getting to Collective Impact

To delve more into how networks help to grow positive forces of change within communities, see “Aligning solutions within local communities” (Page 19) in PARTICIPATE: The power of involving business in social impact networks.

PRINCIPLE 2: Build a community first

Networks are essentially new communities that come together for a particular purpose, sometimes only for a short time. Building community lays the groundwork for doing work together, but it cannot be hurried. This is a tension that often tests a funder’s patience when an answer is in view but the group has yet to cohere. Networks are built out of a web of strong relationships among people who come to trust each other as individuals and gain confidence in the group. The analytical effort of seeking the right answer—researching solutions, canvassing the landscape of actors, forecasting trends—makes it easy to forget the importance of carefully building that trust and confidence. That work is done through forging one-on-one relationships, brokering introductions, and investing time and effort into thoughtful group process that draws on the participants’ strengths and contributes to the sense of a meaningful community.

“The energy of a network comes from problem-solving and learning together. The people involved are so much more empowered when you do that and are able to leverage those activities to create a shared understanding of the core dynamics at play.” Jeff Mohr, The Omidyar Group

“To create real networks, you have to believe that the center of an operation does not have a monopoly on truth. You need to trust the people, trust the process.” Jane Wei-Skillern, writing in The Networked Nonprofit

PRINCIPLE 3: Expect to experiment

Every network is a startup, and as any aspiring entrepreneur will tell you, a startup has to be comfortable with taking risks and in seeing failure as an important part of the path to finding what works. The substantial difference is that where a startup iterates on the design of a product or service that meets the needs of a certain set of consumers, networks iterate on the common ground for working together that meets the needs of a certain set of participants and beneficiaries. But the mindset is the same: like a startup, a network is a temporary container for experimenting your way towards an answer, where the participants are betting their time and resources in hopes of achieving together what they would not be able to do on their own.

“I would suggest [to a Board] that the usual structure of grantmaking actually contributes to an unproductive use of resources. I would argue that if we really want to make change, then what we need to do is create a container where people can be transparent, talk things through, collaborate, and course correct.” Jennie Curtis, Garfield Foundation

PRINCIPLE 4: Contribute to a collaborative spirit and mitigate power dynamics

Networks are sustained by a spirit of giving and collaboration among participants as they coalesce around shared goals. This is easier said than done when everyone involved arrives with a different set of organizational priorities, amount and type of resources to provide, time to commit, and ideas about what progress would look like. Navigating these differences is critical to maintaining the “potlatch” attitude that fuels further participation. As a participant, you can help to set the tone by the way you interact. Look for ways to be giving with your time and resources, to the extent that you can: find opportunities to co-create together, avoid competition for influence, ask for input from all participants, invest your time, and avoid asking for visible credit.
As a funder, it is particularly important to sustain this spirit by acknowledging and actively mitigating power dynamics between yourself and other participants. This is crucial, because there is inherent tension between the peer-to-peer nature of relationships in a network and the reality that a network’s ability to do its work can rise or fall on the funder’s good will. If not addressed, the default attitude is often that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Yet overcoming that tension is not as difficult as it might sound. The very attempt to create an egalitarian environment inside a network already diminishes the view of a funder as having a privileged position, and there are a number of behaviors that can further avoid creating counter-productive interactions within the group:

  • Be fully transparent and encourage others to do the same – about your immediate and underlying reasons for participating, your perspectives on the issue, the role you intend to play, and what resources you might be able to contribute.
  • If you have funding relationships with any of the participants, maintain a clear distinction between network funding and funding for other purposes, so that their participation in the network is entirely on the basis of sharing common ground with the collective work.
  • Prioritize equity in every aspect of the conversation by not favoring certain participants, allowing anyone to dominate, or setting up participants to compete against each other.
  • In group dialogue and in exercising leadership, follow StriveTogether’s rule of thumb: “Be at the table, but sit at the back.” Your goal should be to cultivate the network’s ability to lead itself. It’s important for the group to know what you think, but a little bit of a funder’s perspective goes a long ways.

“Funders… must be fully engaged stakeholders as co-learners in how to address the complex challenge so they can adjust their funding streams appropriately.” Steve Waddell, writing in State of the Field

“Giving money [to a network] will not work if you seek direct credit. I think of this as ‘library philanthropy': the person that needs his name on the library he funded is not well-suited for a network approach to change.” Kimberly Dasher Tripp, Strategy for Scale