At Monitor Institute, a part of Deloitte Consulting, Anna leads the practice on how to drive large-scale social change through galvanizing networks around a shared agenda. She has led aligned action efforts for organizations such as New Profit, Skoll Foundation and Venture Philanthropy Partners. Anna is the author of GATHER: The Art and Science of Effective Convening; ENGAGE: How Funders Can Support and Leverage Networks for Social Impact; and most recently, “Wicked Opportunities” in Business Ecosystems Come of Age.
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Nell: Is the idea of a network entrepreneur new in the world of social change? Or how do you think the use of networks is different now than it has been in the past?
Anna: The idea of an individual who works, often tirelessly, to mobilize diverse stakeholders to tackle a tough problem by developing a coordinated plan of attack is not new by any means. Funders and practitioners have been galvanizing networks to address large scale challenges for decades. But the term “network entrepreneur” is new. I heard it recently from two practitioners, David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman from Converge, who are working with network leaders in California.
Over the years we’ve used several terms to describe this type of person: network weaver, network CEO, system leader, tri-sector athlete, Chief Resilience Officer, ecosystem integrator, to name a few. What is changing, though, is the acceptance of why developing the capacity to lead and engage in problem solving through networks is important—as well as an appreciation for what it takes to do so. Increasingly, we’re seeing a shift from the organization as the primary unit of change to the network as a viable means of achieving social impact goals.
Nell: Why do you think nonprofit leaders should embrace the idea of a network entrepreneur? What makes this approach so attractive to social change efforts?
Anna: It’s not just nonprofit leaders who should embrace the idea of using networks to drive systemic change. The tough problems we face as a society have no consideration for sector or issue boundaries—and can’t be solved by leaders from any one sector. Business and government leaders have just as important a role to play in cross-sector social problem solving. And for companies, working through networks is becoming a powerful way to integrate social impact into their core business strategy rather than isolate it within a corporate social responsibility initiative. This is where a lot of exciting activity is happening globally.
We’ve identified five types of networks that create that intersection between social impact and business value—and in which companies are playing critical roles. There are those networks which can directly benefit a company’s core business and are designed for addressing strategic goals such as stewarding natural resources, enabling market-based solutions and raising industry standards. Then there are networks that tend to more indirectly benefit a company’s core business; and these focus on aligning solutions within local communities and mobilizing action around large-scale solutions. We are seeing bold cross-sector experiments in many arenas–where social impact networks are successfully engaging the private sector to tackle a range of challenges while also meeting specific business needs, such as: effectively stewarding the forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains in California; redesigning the global seafood supply chain to preserve fisheries; surfacing new market-based solutions for building a healthy and sustainable food system worldwide; improving access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries; and enabling communities to create local education ecosystems to support children and youth from cradle to career.
I don’t want to put an unrealistic sheen on the power of networks to solve all problems. Working in this way is one of many important tools in our collective problem-solving toolkit. What networks do, however, is allow us to pursue solutions that would be harder to attain in other ways. A network approach aligns the actions of a diverse set of stakeholders to tackle a larger piece of a problem than by working in isolation; diversifies risk and spreads bets across many experiments; enables innovation by building a platform where different voices can come to the table to shape new solutions; and ultimately, helps build a resilient problem-solving ecosystem where a dense web of relationships provides the resilience necessary to adapt to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. These qualities are harder to get through one-to-one partnerships or from the efforts of a single organization. A network builds a platform that can launch a portfolio of interventions and simultaneously pull many levers for change. That’s what makes them attractive for social change efforts.
Nell: Networks are often organic and can become ineffective if they are overtaken by a single person or entity, yet they also require leadership to be successful. How does a network balance the need for leadership with the need for organic growth?
Anna: Walking the right “leadership line” is certainly critical in a network context; but that’s not to say that networks don’t need focused and intentional leadership. Network leadership requires a different mindset than operating in a traditional organization. It’s more loosely controlled and emergent than top-down and planned. Decision making is shared rather than concentrated in one person. Insights come from the collective rather than from individual “experts.” Power and commitment come from trust among many not from mandates from the C-suite.
In this way, leadership is just one of the many attributes to factor into a network’s design. Through our own work with networks, we’ve identified eight particularly common ways that they can vary to suit different circumstances—and enable or hinder growth. Besides the important leadership attribute, network entrepreneurs need to consider others such as a network’s purpose, alignment, governance, sector, orientation, size and geography.
Our Axes of Collaboration (to the left) is a useful tool for any network entrepreneur as they think about the foundational DNA of a network—and how to design one to best match the type of problem it’s meant to tackle.
For instance, if you’re a network like REAMP, now with over 165 participating organizations focused on the ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050 across the Midwest, you won’t want to design a network that “lives” more on the left side of these axes: one with distributed leadership, informal governance, that’s more learning than action oriented, and has minimal alignment. You’ll never hit that goal with that kind of design. Leadership is a critical component of any network; but so are the other factors that will either help support or inhibit a network’s growth. Considering all these dimensions—and then designing appropriately—is essential.
Nell: When you look at some of the social movements active today — like Black Lives Matter and the protests on college campuses — how does your research on networks help inform your understanding of whether or how successful you think those efforts will be?
Anna: I won’t try to predict the future of these movements. But through our work helping design and launch networks, we know that we need to apply a different frame to evaluate a network’s success. We’ve been influenced by the work of Peter Plastrik and Madeline Taylor who are pushing the field’s thinking around how we measure the impact of a network. For a network, it’s important to understand—and to be able to measure—not just the effects, what a network achieves in terms of outcomes, but also to measure its operations, its “internal health” and how it runs.
We segment network effects into three areas:
- Beneficiary effects (the outcomes and impacts on the people a group aims to serve),
- Idea dissemination (the spread and adoption of language, concepts or practices a network supports) and
- Field building (changes we’ve promoted in the development of the fields in which we work).
We then segment network operations into its structure and health and measure things such as the network’s membership, connectivity, activities, resources, infrastructure and value proposition. Many years ago we developed a diagnostic tool to evaluate a network’s effectiveness. Many of the elements to consider may be highly relevant to those working more directly with movements.
Ultimately, a network’s—or movement’s—success depends on a variety of factors. And getting smart about how to track them in order to refine, recalibrate or redirect the network’s strategy is what matters. Unfortunately, there’s not one solitary variable to evaluate the multi-dimensional nature of a network that’s built to tackle deeply systemic and complex challenges. I wish it were that simple, but it’s not.
Photo Credit: Monitor Institute