Note From Beth: A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a meeting with other capacity builders who work with networks. I wrote a quick reflection on some of the techniques used to facilitate the meeting. This convening of ”network practitioners” (consultants and others who are working with or networks of people and organizations on social change goals) took place at the Packard Foundation and designed and facilitated by consultants Gigi Barsoum and Heather Grant-McLeod. The purpose was share insights and learn more about creating, supporting, and managing networks. Heather agreed to write up this report to share some of the content.
Building Capacity for Social Change 2.0 Guest Post by Heather Grant-McLeod
Over the last five years, a series of funders, communities and cross-sector stakeholders have embarked on new ways of working characterized by thinking at a systems-level, and then mobilizing networks of actors to try and solve large problems at scale. Most often these new experiments have grown out of frustration with the fact that, despite several decades of rapid growth in philanthropy and nonprofits, many of the same social and environmental problems persist, or are getting worse.
These new collaborative initiatives pull together various players (often government, private sector and nonprofits) within an ecosystem, defined by issue and/or place, to coordinate and align their action to drive greater impact. Two oft-cited examples are the Strive network in Cincinnati, and the ReAmp network in the Midwest. But whether you call it “networked” ways of working, “collaboration 2.0” or “collective impact,” this work is characterized by a very different mindset, approach, and set of tools than traditional grant-making or nonprofit work, which has historically focused on supporting programs and organizations, and scaling those up.
Consequently, traditional frameworks and tools focused on organizational branding, production models, capacity-building, and competitive strategy don’t work as well in this new paradigm. Instead, tools focused on systems-thinking/ visualizing, network-mapping, asset-based inquiry, collaboration, collective strategy, and technology-enhanced connectivity are needed. Call this “social change 2.0”.
As those of us working in this emerging space have learned, this work can be complex, dynamic, and tricky – much harder to master than traditional nonprofit management tools. It requires having both “hard skills” (technology, network mapping, analytic tools, strategic thinking, understanding of complexity and dynamic systems) and “soft skills” (group dynamics, crossing boundaries, ability to create alignment, relationship building, networking/ connecting people, conflict resolution, etc.) And it requires thinking above and beyond traditional organizational boundaries. Yet currently very few leaders in these emergent networks and collaborations have the tools and skills they need to succeed. Nor do many consultants, who, like most nonprofit leaders, tend to operate in functional silos and be very good at a few things (e.g. just strategy, or just process facilitation, or just fundraising).
Indeed, while there have been recent articles and case studies calling attention to this work and holding up the promise of “collective impact,” there is not yet significant knowledge on HOW to do this work. There’s no blueprint, or body of practical theory that has been developed over decades – as with nonprofit management, social entrepreneurship, and capacity-building: it is truly an emergent space.
Additionally, there’s a risk that, as more funders embrace this “silver bullet,” without providing adequate technical assistance on the ground, many of these experiments may go off the rails: the perils of local politics, power-plays, and the imposition of top-down, hierarchical/ organizational models will kill these well-intentioned networks rather than allowing them to flourish. As a consequence, there’s a risk that our field may become disillusioned with “collaboration,” and the pendulum will swing back to funding narrow, siloed programs that may produce adequate outcomes, but which are far from producing real impact at scale.
So what to do? Thankfully, there is an emerging group of practitioners – both network leaders / weavers on the ground, and consultants/ intermediaries – who are beginning to develop the knowledge and tools to tackle this work: in the form of publications, on-line blog posts, curriculum for training, and through peer-to-peer learning. (Including some posts that have appeared on this blog.) We convened 40 of these practitioners in California at the Packard Foundation last month – all based in CA, all working in networks (as “backbone” network leaders, or as consultants) – and there was a huge appetite for conversation and learning around this practice.
Our goal was to draw on the collective wisdom in the room to discuss emerging solutions and strategies to the shared challenges of this new approach to social change. What resulted was a rich discussion, and the emergence of more questions that current practitioners are grappling with; including, but not limited to:
- What conditions need to exist for a network approach to succeed?
- What models of “collective impact” or multi-stakeholder collaborations have emerged; is there a typology? Which ‘models’ work under which conditions, in which industries or places? Are there differences in models by field / industry/ place?
- What are the most important stages of the network catalyzing and building process? How do these networks evolve over time?
- What do we know about emerging practices around network strategy, structure, governance, leadership, communication platforms, backbone organizations, etc.?
- What is the role of facilitators, consultants and intermediaries in these networks? What kind of frameworks/ tools/ approaches do these consultants need?
- How can we create standards of practice or at least shared language and framing?
- What to do when a network is in trouble? How to mitigate questions of power and competition in the network?
- How do we evaluate collective impact/ networks? How do we assign causality (or should we?) How do networks learn? What feedback loops exist?
While we had more questions than answers at this convening, many of us left the room energized and inspired by all the experiments taking place on the ground, and the opportunity to continue learning from one another. We’ll circle back with more blog posts as this network of network practitioners emerges, to share what we’re learning with the field.
Heather McLeod Grant is the founder and principal of McLeod-Grant Advisors, and a published author, speaker/trainer, and consultant with more than twenty years experience in the social sector. Her current work focuses on creating transformative leadership and networks for social change: she’s involved in launching several signature leadership programs – the Irvine New Leadership Network and Catalyst Corps; and helping facilitate a number of networks. She is the co-author of the best-selling Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, named a Top Ten Book of 2007 by the Economist (second edition 2012); and of Working Wikily: Social Change with a Network Mindset, Transformer: How to Build a Network to Change a System (The ReAmp Case Study), and Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale.