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How Open to Change Is Your Nonprofit, Really?

nonprofit changeBecause I talk about change in the nonprofit sector a lot, I sometimes get inquiries from nonprofit leaders who think they want change at their organization, but actually don’t.

A nonprofit leader might be excited by the idea of dramatically improved fundraising results, or a board who is engaged and invested in the work, or funders who want to step up, but she isn’t willing to do the hard work to realize that change.

I recently talked with a nonprofit leader who was interested in a Financial Model Assessment because he was intrigued by the idea of potential revenue increases. But when I explained that realizing those changes might necessitate other changes — like how he structures his staff, how involved in decision-making he allows the board to be, even how he crafted their long-term strategy — he began to balk.

But the fact is that you simply cannot expect a different result if you continue to operate in the exact same ways.

When I work with a nonprofit organization, my role is to lead a change process so that when I leave, the organization is more sustainable, more engaged and engaging, more strategic and integrated, and ultimately more effective at creating social change.

But significant change is not easy. And for it to truly come to fruition it requires that the nonprofit leader must fully commit — and get her board and staff to fully commit — to creating real, lasting change.

The nonprofit sector is sometimes criticized for being too stuck in its ways. And indeed it can be hard to create change amid a sector that is so consensus-based. Sometimes even the smallest decisions must involve discussion among staff, the board, even funders and other stakeholders.

So if you really want the reality that your nonprofit faces to be different, if you want to find greater financial sustainability, if you want to achieve more program results, if you want to attract more and bigger funders, if you want a stronger, more effective board, you have to commit to real change. And then you have to get others at your organization to commit to real change as well.

I can often tell the difference between a nonprofit leader who is just playing at change, and one who is actually committed to doing the hard work. Ask these questions to determine if your nonprofit is truly ready for meaningful change:

  • Are we willing (at every level of the organization) to take a hard look at how we operate and make changes where behaviors or systems no longer make sense?
  • Are we willing to have difficult conversations, perhaps on formerly taboo topics, in order to find a better way forward?
  • Are we excited enough by the potential rewards of change to work hard to convince skeptics (on the board and/or staff) to come along?
  • Are we as an organization willing to invest the time (and patience) in a change process that could take months or years to fully realize?
  • Are we willing to open everything we do as an organization to discussion and analysis?

If you can find a critical mass of board and staff members who can answer yes to these questions, then your nonprofit is a candidate for true change and a more effective and sustainable path forward.

Because change is really hard. But with effective, meaningful change can come great reward.

To learn more about the Financial Model Assessment I use with clients, download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.

Photo Credit: Pat Ronan

 

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Nonprofit Leaders, You Are Not Alone

nonprofit leaderOne of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend working one-on-one to coach nonprofit leaders. One of my clients jokingly refers to our coaching sessions as “nonprofit therapy.”

While we certainly don’t delve into psychology when we meet, it is, I think often cathartic for nonprofit leaders to have an impartial third party who can listen to their frustrations with a disengaged board, understand the loneliness of leadership, appreciate their dismay with funders who are pulling them in too many directions, empathize with their fear that fundraising goals won’t be met.

We all — every single one of us — need someone in our lives who understands the challenges we are facing and can offer some guidance, new ideas, insights that can move us from a rut to a more productive path.

When I start a coaching session with a nonprofit leader, I often ask some key questions to get us moving forward:

What is the biggest thing bothering you right now?
Sometimes nonprofit leaders are so stuck in the weeds, so overwhelmed, so exhausted, or so alone that they cannot pinpoint one issue, let alone figure out a way forward. So I start by encouraging them to just unpack everything. This will often result in a venting session, and that’s completely fine. Letting off steam is absolutely crucial. And nonprofit leaders have very few confidants with whom they can share those struggles. Since a nonprofit leader always needs to put on a brave face to her staff, her board and her funders, she has very few people she can tell the bitter truth, so that’s a big part of my role.

How can we prioritize these challenges?
While it might be tempting, we cannot stop with venting. Once we’ve made a list of the challenges, frustrations and concerns a nonprofit leader is facing, I help her to prioritize those challenges in terms of the biggest threats and their dependence on other things to be resolved. So for example, a nonprofit leader who is struggling to meet her fundraising goals, is frustrated by an ineffective board, and lacks enough staff must analyze how large a threat each of those issues is related to the others, and which are dependent on the others to solve. It may be that kicking the board into gear might help alleviate the other two problems because if the board can start helping bring money in the door, she can better address her fundraising goals which leads to her ability to add additional staff.

Where can we tap into your existing assets?
But how do you do that? As I’ve said, nonprofit leaders are often very isolated and think it is all up to them. But if a nonprofit leader can think strategically about who might be able to help, he can move forward more effectively. A nonprofit leader who is struggling without enough staff and is challenged by his ineffective board could potentially find an ally or two among his board and/or funders. I help a nonprofit leader to think through potential allies who can help overcome a hurdle. A one-on-one conversation with a quiet, but well-respected board member about the specific challenge a nonprofit leader faces may yield that board member’s support and voice toward bringing the rest of the board around. Similarly, identifying one or two funders who could be convinced of the need to invest in capacity-building could yield additional staff and infrastructure to overcome those challenges.

I firmly believe that there is a solution to every challenge a nonprofit leader faces. But in order to get to that solution, a nonprofit leader must be willing to analyze the problem and think strategically and creatively about how she can solve it.

If you want to learn more about the nonprofit leader coaching I provide, download my Coaching benefit sheet. And if you want to learn more about being a strong nonprofit leader, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar

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The Importance of Taking Time Off

hammockThere was a very disturbing report last week. An NPR poll found that half of Americans who work 50-plus hours a week don’t take all or most of the vacation they’ve earned. And among those who do take vacations, 30% say they do “a significant amount” of work while on vacation.

Ugh!

I cannot stress enough how important it is to the critical social change work we are all doing to take a break every once in awhile. And I mean really take a break and reconnect with those things that make us human, not machine. I don’t care what your job is and how critically important the work you do is, you will do it more effectively if you are a whole person. And you become and stay a whole person when you take time away from that job.

And because I believe in practicing what I preach, I’m about to take my own advice and disconnect from the world of social change (and social media) for the next few weeks. Instead I will be relaxing, playing with my kids, reading, hiking, and just being.

But in case you’ve already taken your time off (good for you!) and you want some things to read while I’m out, here are a few things to explore:

I’ll be back to writing the blog in mid-August. In the meantime, I hope you all find some space to breathe, to think, and to reconnect with what you are meant to do. Because believe me, we need you back in the Fall inspired and ready for the hard work ahead.

Photo Credit: Five Furlongs

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How Is Nonprofit Overhead Still a Thing?

nonprofit overheadLest you think we’ve made headway on overcoming the Overhead Myth (the false notion that nonprofits must keep their fundraising and administrative costs cripplingly low) you need only look as far as a recent Forbes article, “5 Nonprofit Leaders Share How to Keep Overhead Costs to a Minimum.” And this is perhaps even worse because it is nonprofit leaders themselves, not philanthropists or business leaders, telling nonprofit leaders that overhead is bad.

The Forbes Nonprofit Council made up of “top nonprofit execs [who] offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends” compiled these 5 “tips” for keeping nonprofit overhead low. And the tips are as insidious as you might think. I know I should take the high road and just ignore this ridiculous article, but I simply can’t. In fact, it boggles my mind that overhead (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant John Oliver) is still a thing.

The Forbes article neglects to point out that the concept of “nonprofit overhead” has undergone a real transformation in the past few years. It assumes that “overhead” is still a dirty word, but anyone who has been paying attention knows that that is no longer a given.

There has been a movement among nonprofits and their philanthropic and government funders to evaluate nonprofits based on their results, rather than just their overhead rate. The federal government and some local governments have moved to increase the indirect costs paid to nonprofits. And just last month a new Bridgespan study analyzed the indirect costs of 20 different nonprofit organizations and found, not surprisingly, that overhead rates vary greatly depending on the business model and industry of a given organization (just as it does in the for-profit sector).

So for the Forbes article to simply encourage nonprofits to keep their overhead as low as possible ignores the changes that have occurred in the sector and the very real fact that different organizations, business models and issue areas might require very different administrative and fundraising costs.

But beyond those huge oversights, the Forbes article does a further disservice to the nonprofit sector by providing 5 ridiculous and crippling “tips” for keeping overhead low. Here’s why each one is so wrong:

  1. “Look for Low-Cost IT Options”
    To the contrary, I would say that many nonprofits don’t spend enough on IT. So often nonprofit leaders are using outdated technology and systems, or worse, not gathering data at all because they simply don’t have the funds. Nonprofits need to spend more, not less, on IT.

  2. “Don’t Overwork Your Team”
    Seriously? Isn’t overwork simply a given in the nonprofit sector? Because nonprofit leaders often don’t have the funds to hire enough staff, they ask the staff they do have to wear too many hats. The solution is not to tell nonprofit leaders to stop overworking their team. Rather nonprofit leaders must raise the funds necessary to fully staff the work. And that means we need more money in the sector for capacity building.

  3. “Reward Innovation”
    The Forbes article advises nonprofit leaders to “create a culture that rewards innovation and encourages employees to be scrappy.” Certainly on this point nonprofits already win in spades — nonprofits are nothing if not scrappy. But I’m not sure scrappiness and innovation go hand in hand. It’s hard to be innovative when you are worried the doors may close tomorrow. Innovation comes with more capacity capital — once nonprofits have the tools, systems and people they need, innovation can follow.

  4. “Maintain a Clear Business Methodology”
    And here’s where Forbes falls back on the old stand by — nonprofits need to act more like businesses. But what clear business methodology advises undercutting the sales function (fundraising in the nonprofit sector), systems, and staffing? Why do we choose only some of the ways we want nonprofits to “be like businesses,” but ignore others? No successful business leader will tell you that is a smart strategy.

  5. “Invest in Community Leaders”
    The Forbes “experts” encourage nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers, students and interns in order to save on staff costs. NOOOOOO! If we are truly going to solve the challenges we face, we need more experts, not fewer. While volunteers and students are great for rote tasks, that only gets you so far. Nonprofits need expert fundraisers, brilliant program people, IT geniuses and more. We don’t encourage Silicon Valley to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next tech solution, so why tell nonprofit leaders to hire more volunteers and interns to create the next social solution?

Can we please, please, please move beyond this broken and damaging view of nonprofits? We would never ask the makers of the next shiny widget to cut their sales, staff and systems to the bone. So let’s not demand that of those working to save the world.

Instead, let’s have a smarter conversation about how social change leaders must ask for (and receive!) the tools they really need to make our world a better place.

If you want to learn more about raising capacity capital to strengthen your nonprofit, check out the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Guide and the Power of Capacity Capital book.

Photo Credit: Adrian

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We Must Rise

leadersIt has been a rough several weeks. The horrifying brutality in Orlando was just another instance in what seems like an endless stream of gun violence. And that violence is just one of the challenges facing us, from an increasingly hate-filled presidential campaign, to growing wealth inequality, to racial unrest, to political polarization and gridlock. It seems now more than ever we need real leadership to point us toward the light.

But our nation’s leaders themselves are in turmoil. You only need to look at a recent picture of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to see how conflicted and immobilized a leader can become.

We are witnessing a time that requires true leadership. This is a time where we need more people to ask themselves, “What is the right thing to do? What is the hard, potentially unpopular, but absolutely necessary thing to do?”

I think we saw a brief moment of leadership last week when Senate Democrats staged a filibuster  to urge lawmakers to entertain a vote on gun regulation. Regardless of your politics, and the fact that the eventual votes on gun regulation were lost, I think we can all agree that it took courage and leadership for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) to stand up for 14 hours demanding that his fellow senators take action. His point, along with the other Senators who stood with him, was that we are experiencing a time when leadership is needed. We no longer have the luxury of simply standing by while events at odds with what we know to be right unfold.

As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put it:

“In this body, we don’t have to be heroes. We just have to not be bystanders. We’ve been bystanders in this body, we’ve been bystanders in this nation, as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that’s not heroic. To stand up and say we can be safer tomorrow, we can protect people’s lives, that’s not heroic. That’s just saying, ‘I will not be a bystander.’ And that’s all we have to do.”

A true leader does not ignore the fear that it will be hard, or that they don’t have enough resources, or that they aren’t the right person. A true leader recognizes those fears and proceeds anyway. A true leader doesn’t do the easy thing, or the thing that will benefit him individually or that will benefit the group that he represents. A true leader digs deep and honestly asks — what is the right thing to do? And a true leader does that thing.

As Martin Luther King said:

The great question facing us today is whether we will remain awake through this world-shaking revolution, and achieve the new mental attitudes which the situations and conditions demand. There would be nothing more tragic during this period of social change than to allow our mental and moral attitudes to sleep while this tremendous social change takes place…We are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is a time, perhaps more than usual, for social change leaders especially to step up. Because they are in many respects the moral compass of our country, of our world. They are the ones who are constantly thinking about a better path forward — a path that is more inclusive, democratic, fair and equitable, civil, safe and sustainable. Social change leaders are predisposed to rise up and lead us to a better way (and we are already starting to see that with work to address gun violence).

Social change leaders know better than anyone that times of enormous upheaval can also be times of tremendous opportunity. But only if we choose to act. And, more importantly, only if we are led to act.

At this moment we must not shrink from the darkness. We must not cower in the corner, or think that someone else will do the thing that we all know must be done. We must step up, we must speak out. We must dig deep and ask ourselves, “What can I do (however slight) to shift us from the course of darkness?”

And so we must rise.

Photo Credit: pixabay

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A Summer To Do List for Nonprofit Leaders

nonprofit summerMemorial Day is almost here, and in my mind that means so is the beginning of summer. While work surely carries on over the summer months, for many of us there tends to be more space to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with your core.

But you have to make time for it.

Sometimes nonprofit leaders will tell me that they love the slower pace of summer because it means they can catch up on their to do list, move paperwork off their desk, make progress on their filing, get more organized.

Ugh!

Let me tell you right now that your to do list will never be complete, so instead, make better use of the space summer provides by taking a big step back and getting inspired for the work ahead.

Here are some tasks I suggest you put at the top of your to do list this summer:

Get Quiet
Before you can do anything else, you need to step out of the rat race for a bit and listen to the silence. There you can reconnect with your core, ponder some bigger questions, figure out what you are meant to do. Maybe you need to take a trip away from your normal routine and the many demands on your time. Maybe you need to find a space to just be. Maybe you need to find activities that are outside of your job, because remember that you are so much more than the leader of a nonprofit organization. However and wherever you do it, you have to make some time to journey inside.

Find Inspiration Again
I know as a nonprofit leader you are (or at least once were) inspired by the work you do. Passion and commitment to mission are often what define a social change leader. But that source of inspiration is not endless. And the day-to-day drudgery of trying to move mountains can wear you down and make that light grow dim. When that happens you have to seek inspiration elsewhere. The world we live in is endlessly inspiring, so when you are feeling that your vision is impossibly narrow, get outside your walls. We must give ourselves permission to reconnect with what makes us human, not machine. But if you simply cannot figure out what will inspire you, go back to the first item and get quiet enough, long enough to figure it out.

Ask Some Big Questions
Once you have found quiet and inspiration you will then have the capacity to figure out what’s next. Nonprofit leaders are so busy with the day-to-day that they often find themselves disconnected from the big picture. Why are you doing this work? What are your ultimate goals? Who is your target audience? Take advantage of the mental space summer provides to ask yourself and your board some of the big questions that can help you recommit to the work and more easily attract the other people and resources necessary for the next chapter.

Figure Out What’s In Your Way
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you are so accustomed to scraping by without the necessary tools, staff, systems to do your job that you rarely take a big step back and ask, “What do we really need to accomplish our goals?” Take some time to figure out the things that drive you and your staff crazy. What are the hurdles standing in your way of doing more? An ineffective board? A lack of strategy? Not enough money? The wrong technology? Not enough staff? Create a list of what you really need to do the work, put it in front of your board and ask them to help put together a capacity building plan.

Forgive Yourself
Man, are social change leaders hard on themselves. Apparently it’s not enough to work on saving the world, but you have to continually berate yourself for not doing it quickly enough, or well enough. So get over it. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Give yourself a break and you will find that without a bully constantly breathing down your neck you can accomplish much more. Take that knowledge with you into the fall, and you may just be transformed.

This summer, step outside the routine and commit to a real break that allows you the physical, mental and spiritual space that you as a social change leader so desperately need. Happy Summer!

Photo Credit: Unsplash 

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Social Change Requires a New Nonprofit Leader

leadershipNote: Earlier this month I was asked by the Philanthropreneurship Forum to write a piece about nonprofit leadership, which follows. The piece originally appeared on the Forum here.

The new millennium has been a difficult one. A struggling global economy, threatening climate change, crumbling education and healthcare systems, and a widening income gap are just a few of the social problems we face. And as our social challenges mount, and the government increasingly offloads services, the burden shifts to the nonprofit sector.

Now more than ever nonprofit leaders must step up to the plate. In fact, it is time for a new kind of nonprofit leader, one who has the confidence, ability, foresight, energy, and strength of will to find and deliver on solutions. It is time we move from a nonprofit leader who is worn out, worn down, out of money and faced with insurmountable odds, to a reinvented nonprofit leader who confidently gathers and leads the army of people and resources necessary to create real, lasting social change.

In my mind, here is what the new nonprofit leader should look like:

Unlocks the Charity Shackles
“Charity” is more than a word, it’s a destructive mindset that keeps the work of social change sidelined and impoverished. “Charity” harkens back to the beginnings of philanthropy, which was largely the purview of women and viewed as tangential to and less valuable than the more important “business” of the male-dominated world. While charity was an afterthought, social change is rapidly becoming an integral part of the economy. As social problems mount, we must shift from the “charity” of our predecessors to an understanding of social change as part of everything we do. And nonprofit leaders must confidently and assertively articulate the critical importance of their work and why it requires real investment, because social change is about changing larger systems. So it takes real, significant investment of resources, not the pennies that charity requires.

Moves From Misplaced Gratitude to Impregnable Confidence
In the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work. If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment (with a delinquent board member or a meddlesome funder), she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships. Nonprofit leaders must rise from bended knee with confidence in themselves, their staff, and their social change work to articulate what they really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And they get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in the way.

Lives, Breathes and Leads Strategy
Real social change is only a pipe dream if it is not connected to smart strategy. To get there a nonprofit leader must ask board and staff to answer some key strategic questions like:

  • What change do we want to create?
  • Where do we fit in the external environment?
  • How do we measure if that change is happening?
  • What are the right activities to get to there?
  • What is the most sustainable financial model to get there?
  • What people and networks do we need with us?

These are not easy questions, and finding the right answers is even harder. But that is true leadership.

And part of that strategy may involve a (formerly feared) move into advocacy. 501(c) 3 organizations have long been told to stay out of politics. The myth is that charity is too noble to be mired in the mess of pushing for political change. But the fact is that simply providing services is no longer enough to solve the underlying problems. Nonprofits are increasingly recognizing that they can no longer sit by and watch their client load increase while disequilibrium grows. Nonprofits must (and many already are) advocate for changes to the ineffective systems that produce the need for their existence.

Uses Money as a Tool
Without money, a compelling, inspiring, world-changing vision for social change is only a sentence on paper. As much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, and without a smart plan for how a nonprofit will secure and use money there is no mission. So instead of dreaming up magic bullet fundraising schemes, a nonprofit leader must develop an overall financial model for her work that fully integrates with the organization’s mission and core competencies. And because money is so central to mission, you cannot make decisions about the organization, about programs, about staffing, really about anything without understanding the financial implications of those decisions.

Embraces the Network
If instead of building an institution, a nonprofit leader built networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change. A true leader leaves her ego, and the ego of her organization aside in order to assemble all necessary resources (individuals, institutions, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of thinking just about her organization, her staff, her mission, her board, her donors, the nonprofit leader must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside her walls, the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than a single organization can. A nonprofit leader understands that the network approach — particularly for nonprofits that are so resource-constrained — can create a much larger effect than a single entity can.

I believe that what separates great leaders from mediocre leaders is an ability to inspire others to greatness beyond what they thought possible. A true leader asks us to rise above our current circumstances – and in the nonprofit sector where more and more is being asked of organizations with less and less, those circumstances are often dire — to do more and be more than we ever thought possible. It is with that kind of real leadership that lasting social change can happen.

Photo Credit: Chuck Abbe

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The Network As Social Change Tool: An Interview with Anna Muoio

Anna Muoio face2In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Anna Muoio, an expert on the use of networks in social change efforts.

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.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

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.

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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:

  1. Beneficiary effects (the outcomes and impacts on the people a group aims to serve),
  2. Idea dissemination (the spread and adoption of language, concepts or practices a network supports) and
  3. 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

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