Bringing a Network Mindset To Nonprofit Boards | Beth's Blog

Bringing a Network Mindset To Nonprofit Boards

Networked Nonprofit

Note from Beth: A few weeks ago, the Leadership Learning Community invited me into their board meeting.   Not just to quietly listen, but participate in the discussion about applying a networked lens to nonprofit governance.    (If you want to better understand what the term network mindset and what it has to do with nonprofit leadership, check out their recent paper on the topic.)

Guest Post: Bringing a Network Mindset to Our Nonprofit Board by Deborah Meehan

Over the last month as we prepared for the Leadership Learning Community (LLC) board meeting we decided to turn the light back on ourselves asking, “How might governing in a more networked way help us to fulfill our mission of promoting leadership approaches that are more networked and collective? And, what would it look like?”

The question was sparked by a couple of events. I was happy for the chance to participate in a CompassPoint focus group of seasoned EDs and marveled as I listened to people talk about their boards: What are reasonable expectations? Do we have the right board? Are we supporting them appropriately? etc.

I had to wonder about some elusive “gold standard” for board performance that leaves ED’s and boards questioning themselves.  Our own board has had many discussions about what kind of board we are and want to be. Maybe it’s time to rethink boards and Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s recent book, The Networked Nonprofit, sure provides good food for thought on this topic.

The LLC staff read this book and found ourselves paying more attention to how we are engaging our community (and if you are wondering who our community is…it’s you… anyone reading LLC’s newsletter, using our site, attending LLC webinars and meetings). As we were preparing for our February 2nd board meeting, we noticed that we put a lot of time into preparing board materials that would probably be interesting to members of our community who care about our direction, priorities and plans for work. One board member who couldn’t attend said he would enjoy doing things for LLC more if he was not a board member because he would not feel the weight of all that he was not doing.

These experiences raised a number of issues pertinent to bringing a network mindset to leadership. Being intentionally transparent by sharing board materials will give LLC more access to ideas and resources from a large number of folks who benefit and can contribute more to LLC’s work. And if we invite more people in we can better distribute the work, get more done and not overtax a small group of supporters, our current board.

We took a small first step by opening our board meeting. We invited six guests and a couple of them suggested others who had some wisdom about boards and network strategies. The first big surprise – everyone we asked responded within 48 hrs…even on a weekend! All we had to do was ask and people were happy to help. And help they did.

We would like to give a huge acknowledgment to our dynamic guests who jumped right in: Renato Almanzor from LeaderSpring, Marla Cornelius from CompassPoint, Beth Kanter (yes, Beth of the Networked Nonprofit), Kathy Reich from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Odin Zackman, former LLC board founder of DIG IN.

Our expanded board session generated insightful and practical suggestions – get to know the networks that each of your board members are part of…map them, old school with post-its and lines. Figure out how to connect and leverage the networks of board members. Look at coordinating councils forms of board that have board members being a conduit to involving others. Bring in new people for consultations, like we did with this small experiment. Be as transparent as possible. Share your board materials and let everyone know what you are up to.

We have a few next steps to move forward in the process of opening up our board and realize that we have more latitude than some with this experimentation because we are under fiscal sponsorship.

• First we are writing about it and will be transparent about this process and our learning.
• We are sharing the report we produced for the board on our work. They loved it and we hope you will check it out and share your ideas and reactions.
• Our board members are looking at who they know that should be introduced to LLC so they can build those connections.
• We will continue to hold consultative sessions with board members and community members. We are uniformly told by participants who come to help that they walk away having learned a lot. Please let us know if you would like to be in a session on Financial Sustainability, Our Business Model for Consulting Services, or a Network Approach to National Meetings. There will be more sessions as we need them so stay tuned.

Through these activities and as more and more people become involved in the work of providing leadership to LLC, we will begin to understand from our experience what a networked board looks like. Two years ago, when we extended an invitation to our community to join the design team for our national meeting over 20 people responded and our board chair, Eugene Eric Kim, had the radical idea about selecting the team, take everyone! Well, that would be an interesting approach to board recruitment wouldn’t it?

Deborah Meehan is founder and executive director of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), a nonprofit organization focused on transforming the way leadership is conceived, conducted, and evaluated. Deborah has created a consulting services arm of LLC and conducted evaluations for national and international leadership programs and produced leadership scans, literature reviews and made program recommendations on behalf of 30 foundations that include a broad range of small, large, regional, state and prominent national foundations. The LLC recently launched a collaborative research initiative that promotes leadership as a more inclusive, networked and collective process.

8 Responses

  1. John Maloney says:

    Hi —

    Key tools to advance the network mindset are network visualization, analysis and optimization. A picture tells a thousand words!

    I am pleased to announce Valdis Krebs will deliver a one-day tutorial on Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) in SF on 11 March 2011. Valdis is known in the NPO community and takes a keen interest in ONA for non-profits. Here are some further details.


    This is a non-commercial, not for-profit community event. All are welcome. Registration in advance rqr’d.

    The purpose is to fundamentally advance network fluency, comprehension and mastery for leaders, NPOs and all organizations.

    Attractive group and non-profit tuition discounts exists. Contact for Discount Code and with questions.


  2. Great post, thank you for sharing concrete examples of how you’re taking a more networked approach to leadership in your organization.

    Social Venture Partners is a network by design, with individuals pooling resources, time and talent for social change. However, like you, we’ve also realized that if we truly want to take our work – as funders and as change-makers – to the next level, we need to broaden our network. And like your story, transparency is very important.

    To share a few of things we’ve done since last September:
    – Made the executive directors and board chairs of our grantee organizations full Partners in SVP (waiving the $6,000 annual membership), and invited their participation in our grant committees, advocacy committees, education & social events, and capacity building work;
    – Initiated an Under-35 Partner program, because we recognized that our Partnership was aging over time, and we need to stay relevant to emerging philanthropists and include their ideas, talents and voices; and
    – Opened up our grant committee process more, so instead of meetings being held with only to the 12 people serving on a particular grant committee, we publicize within our network when and where meetings are taking place and invite any Partner to attend.

    We also are launching a network weaver project in March, encouraging our Partners to come up with their own ideas for experiments that will generate more connections in our network, and empower THEM to take action directly (staff will support but not lead these efforts).

  3. […] Instead, we modeled the idea by inviting guests to think with us. (Beth Kanter, one of our guests, reposted Deborah’s post on her blog.) Even though I and other board members (notably Grady McGonagill) […]

  4. Roger Carr says:


    I am interested in your opinion about the role and mix of board members. I have read much lately about selecting and using board members for the money they can give and personal/corporate networks they can influence to gain additional donations. Although I consider this important, I have a hard time believing this sole focus on fundraising is best for most nonprofit organizations. For example, this would eliminate most young people from becoming board members and contributing at that level in other valuable ways. What do you think?

  5. Deborah says:

    Hi Roger,

    That’s a great question and I am sure I am one among maybe a million EDs who would just love it if our board generated our budgets or even a good part of it. You have reminded me that we started out with a board that was predominantly foundation representatives, and they definitely were a conduit to resources. Only one of 12 is still at her foundation. When people changed jobs and wondered if they stepped down we said “no” and came to learn about all of the other assets board members had to bring. As we think about growing our board now we talk about that piece, how to reenergize a funding collaborative and about all of the other types of contributions waiting to be tapped among our supporter. Maybe a network strategy could help us find a way to have it all.

  6. Hi — I really do not understand this discussion. There is nothing about networks. For example, among the most influential network thinking in this area is in structural holes. See:

    Seems to be no discussion of even basic network principles or properties such as emergence, centrality, complexity, prestige, clusters, equivalence, etc., etc.

    Mindset depends on language and comprehension. Absent even the basics of network fluency, bringing a network mindset forward is challenged, at best.


  7. […] focus on the very first steps.   Once you or your organization views the world with a networked mindset, then you need to visualize the network.   There are […]