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The Networks and Institutions Of Social Change

By Nell Edgington



Berlin WallI’ve been thinking a lot lately about how networks and institutions must work together to create social change. As I mentioned earlier, social change happens when networks (loose connections of people and groups) organize themselves enough to pressure outdated institutions to adapt (like in the civil rights movement, global democracy movements, and the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage).

But when networks and institutions don’t connect, social change doesn’t happen (like in the Occupy movement). So networks must organize enough to influence institutions, and institutions must open themselves enough to let networks in. Social change requires that the two work in tandem.

David Brooks captured this theme in his recent New York Times column when he talked about the death of  the “Organization Man.” He claims that we are witnessing “a failure of governance around the world” because networks are being valued over institutions, as he puts it:

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious. Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

Networks are king and institutions are left by the wayside, resulting in chaos. Effective social change happens when networks infiltrate institutions enough to help them adapt.

This is echoed in Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano’s groundbreaking Stanford Social Innovation Review article in 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit.” They argued that nonprofit institutions must connect to and become more like networks in order to effectively create social change:

Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations…By mobilizing resources outside their immediate control, networked nonprofits achieve their missions far more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably than they could have by working alone…Unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values…According to our research, nonprofits that pursue their missions through networks of long-term, trust-based partnerships consistently achieve more sustainable mission impact with fewer resources than do monolithic organizations that try to do everything by themselves.

But it is not just a one-way street. For social change to take hold, institutions must connect to networks and networks must connect to institutions. The Occupy movement is a great example of what happens when a network doesn’t connect to institutions. The movement eventually died because, as The Economist put it, the Occupy Movement “did not become the sort of mass movement that could deliver legislative and regulatory change.”

For real change to happen we need networks and institutions to work together. Networks are fluid, innovative, energetic and quick-moving, while institutions are well-resourced, legitimate, and powerful. So the challenge for social change leaders is to get outside your four walls, figure out where the networks and institutions lie, and forge real connections.

Photo Credit: Berlin Wall, RIAN Archive

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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2 Comments to The Networks and Institutions Of Social Change

[…] — Americans re-entering the public sphere. (Although some argue that if this movement doesn’t connect to larger institutions — like the political parties — it won’t actually result in social […]

[…] It’s almost inarguable that today’s political climate is polarizing. But another polarizing sub-climate is among activists who desire social change. During a classic 2 a.m. conversation in the Fishbowl, a friend and I came to a conclusion. There are two prominent styles among those who mobilize communities to effect change: marchers and lobbyists. Marchers are the types of people who see the value and efficacy of public demonstrations as the most efficient allocation of their time. Lobbyists derive value from working within governmental institutions to effect change. Both styles are invaluable, but only when they work in tandem. […]

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