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The Network Approach to Social Change

By Nell Edgington



nonprofit networkAlthough I already mentioned (in my September 10 Great Reads list) a really interesting article about “network entrepreneurs,” I want to further explore the concept because I think it could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in September, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer describe a “network entrepreneur” as different from, and much more effective at creating social change than a typical nonprofit leader. As they put it:

A network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.

And this mirrors Wei-Skillern’s earlier article from 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit” where she described how a “networked nonprofit” builds alliances far beyond its own walls and is thus much more effective at creating social change that a traditional nonprofit:

Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And 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.

In essence, the network approach to social change is one of true leadership — leadership writ large. Because a true leader leaves their ego, and the ego of their organization, aside in order to assemble all the required resources (individuals, institutions, networks, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of leading an organization, a network entrepreneur is, in essence, leading a social change movement.

A network entrepreneur understands that social change lives beyond any single organization. It requires someone (or a set of someones) to marshall all the necessary resources, create a larger change vision and lead people towards that vision.

This concept is so critical to nonprofit leaders who are often working with such limited resources. If instead of working to build an institution, a nonprofit leader worked to build networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change.

So what does this network approach look like in practice for a nonprofit leader?

Instead of thinking just about your organization, your staff, your mission, your board, your donors, you must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside your walls. You need to analyze the other people and entities working on similar challenges, and not just in the nonprofit space, but also in other sectors, geographies and time periods (yes, history matters!).  Determine how other places, other people, other organizations, both past and present, addressed similar problems. You need to understand the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than your single organization can. Figure out who the influencers are in the space and how to connect your work with those other individuals, institutions, networks.

The network approach also requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding. Instead leaders must take an abundance approach that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder approach.

And the network approach involves having the confidence to think that there is potentially a larger solution and that you might be part of it. The dysfunctional power imbalance present for so long in the nonprofit sector has bred a crisis of confidence that keeps nonprofit leaders focused just on their own work, instead of seeing the larger picture and envisioning a larger solution or role in that solution.

The network approach to social change involves taking a big step back from the work you have always done. It requires asking a much larger set of questions. And having the faith, confidence and leadership to plug into the network for social change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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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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8 Comments to The Network Approach to Social Change

[…] The concept of the "network entrepreneur" could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.  […]

Christine Egger
October 17, 2015

Great post, Nell, and imho the most important discussion happening in social change sectors today. Requires a true re-orientation in the way most people approach their work, and that requires new skills and resourcing and a tremendous amount of tenacity.

Nell Edgington
October 19, 2015

Thanks Christine, and yes, I completely agree. This is a completely different approach and thus requires a lot of effort to make it a reality.

Jan Schaad
October 25, 2015

Thanks, Nell,for publishing your wise thought about social action and change. Next up: highlights of existing models. Are they out there?

Nell Edgington
October 26, 2015

Thanks Jan. In both of the articles I quote in this post there are great examples of organizations using the networked approach. And I also encourage my clients to employ this approach. You can see case studies of my clients at http://www.socialvelocity.net/clients. But there are many more examples out there. Have you seen any?

[…] successful if they embrace the use of networks. I think there will be a growing recognition that nonprofits must build networks in their social change efforts. They must understand the points of leverage for attacking a […]

Jane Wei-Skillern
April 28, 2016

Dear Nell,
Thank you for summarizing some of my work so articulately. I honestly couldn’t have said it better myself, and appreciate your sharing these ideas with your readers. I would welcome the opportunity to connect as I am always seeking new peers and partners to help advance these ideas in the field. I know that I need to practice what I preach and network with many others of like mind who are demonstrating this powerful leadership approach in their work.

Nell Edgington
April 29, 2016

Jane,

Thanks so much for your comments and for reaching out. I’m delighted to hear that I have accurately articulated your work. I think the world of the network model and your work analyzing and promoting it. I would love to connect as well!

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