From the Kids' Table to the Adults' Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks | Beth's Blog

From the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks


Flickr Photo by Banana Custard


Note from Beth: Last week I published an interview with Lean Start Up author, Eric Ries, that talked about how the lean start up ideas apply to the nonprofit sector.   One of the themes that bubbled up in our conversation was the relationship between a start up and a VC funder which has many parallels to the relationship between philanthropic funders and nonprofits.    One the points that Eric made about this was that  nonprofits should change what they promise to funders when asking for funding for innovative programs.  Change the conversation from vanity metrics to validated learning.       In these early stages, it is more important to honor learning.    But there is something else to add as well.

This guest post is a summary of a longer piece posted on The Whitman Institute’s website titled From The Kids’ Table To The Adults’ Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks. Co-authored by the Institute’s Executive Director John Esterle, Malka Kopell and Palma Strand, the article discusses a new project named “The Civity Networks Project,” a collaborative effort between the institute and the Silicon Valley Community

The article makes a compelling case for funders to focus on relationships rather than networks.  Networks have been valuable to the social change sector because of the potential for collective impact rather than individual impact. But as the authors write, networks comprise people who are in relationship with each other, and it is the critical role of relationships that often gets marginalized in the focus on networks. The authors say that having sufficient capital and resources to build authentic, deep relationships is fundamental to achieving progress on many issues.

Learning and relationship building are often considered “soft” outcomes but to get the to tangible ones we need to invest and focus on them first.

From the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table: Taking Relationships Seriously in a World of Networks guest post by John Esterle, Malka Kopell & Palma Strand

In recent years, funders, practitioners and academics have been paying more and more attention to the role of social networks in addressing issues of public concern. Collective impact, funder-supported grantee networks, and cross-sector collaborations are all part of this trend.

Our own experiences—in philanthropy, consulting, and academia—lead us to applaud the network “crescendo” and join the chorus. We want to pause the music for a minute, however, to issue a challenge.

Networks are made up of people – people who are in relationship with each other. But we’ve noticed that even people who acknowledge the importance of  networks don’t always take the next step and lift up the importance of relationships. For networks to fulfill their promise, that has to change.

From the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table

Taking relationships seriously can feel awkward. Particularly when it comes to funding decisions, relationships have been seated, so to speak, at the “kids’ table.” We think that it is time to invite them to the “adults’ table”—even though this may entail a gawky “adolescent” phase.

Identifying sources of discomfort will help.

First, our society has traditionally seen the cultivation of relationships as a “soft skill,” a manifestation of heart rather than head. Second, we live in an individualistic culture – independence, personal autonomy, and freedom have historically been our most cherished values. Networks and their relationships, however, embody interdependence. Third, we lack agreed-upon criteria for measuring relationships and their quality, perhaps because of our historical and cultural inattention to and undervaluation of relationships. And fourth and finally, relationships take time, yet our culture focuses on the short term. We discount the value of future costs and benefits in public and organizational decision-making in favor of those closer to hand.

Funder Support for Relationships

Fortunately, we are seeing concrete examples of what can happen when funders recognize relationships as having a place at the theory-of-change table—when funders support strengthening relationships where they are weak … or absent. The Barr Foundation’s Fellows Program, for example, supports the “nurturing” of cooperative relationships among Boston’s non-profit leaders over time with the identified purpose of encouraging the emergence of a more “collaborative culture. “

Similarly, Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, a private independent philanthropic trust in Omaha, Nebraska, says, “We place a high priority and value on building enduring relationships with our grantees. That aspect of our work transcends individual grants and moves our entire body of work toward Mr. Kiewit’s fundamental goal for his philanthropy: to build and sustain the communities we share, literally and figuratively. As we see it, the Omaha community is relationships.”

This true interdependence – including funders in the mix – paves the way for the kind of deep collaboration and problem-solving that is necessary to tackle complicated community problems.

The Civity Networks Project—Taking Relationships Seriously

We are currently working together—John as funder, Malka as lead practitioner, and Palma as advisor—on a networks project that takes relationships seriously: The Civity Networks Project. Using Silicon Valley as a test site, and partnering with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Project seeks to build the social trust that enables regional problem-solving by strengthening civic networks in the region.

Rather than creating a new network, the Project is designed to “tune up” the networks that currently exist in the region. The theory of change envisions these network “tune-ups” leading to “butterfly effects” that contribute to regional resilience by instigating small but important improvements in how each leader operates within his or her own networks.

When key leaders pay attention to, cultivate, and enrich the location and quality of the relationships within their own networks, “civity” and social trust increase and regional problem-solving improves.

It’s time for all of us –in our various sectors—to move relationships to the foreground to enhance our picture of social change. Let’s begin; let’s experiment; let’s share what we learn.

(this guest blog has been excerpted from a larger blog – if you want to see the full article, go here.)

John Esterle is the Executive Director of The Whitman Institute, an independent foundation that invests in the power of relationships, constructive dialogue and the connections they generate to trigger problem solving and creative approaches required to achieve a healthy, peaceful, equitable and sustainable world.

Malka Kopell is an expert in the field of civic engagement and collaboration. In 1990, she founded Community Focus, a non-profit that works with local governments to develop and facilitate cross-sector collaboration to address tough problems in communities.

Palma Strand is a Professor of Law at the Creighton Law School, where she is associated with the Werner Institute of Negotiation and Dispute Resolution.


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