In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Jane Wei-Skillern.
Jane Wei-Skillern is the co-author of the groundbreaking 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “The Networked Nonprofit,” and a leading researcher on networks for social change. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Social Sector Leadership at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and has also served on the faculties of the London, Harvard, and Stanford Business Schools. For the past 15 years, her research has focused on high impact nonprofit networks, network leadership and network cultures.
Nell: Jane, you and Sonia Marciano arguably coined the term “networked nonprofit” with your 2008 Stanford Social Innovation Review article of the same name. But is the idea of creating and using networks to create social change necessarily new to the space? How is a networked nonprofit different now than in the past, or what has changed?
Jane: In our article, we were most interested in the ways in which leaders and organizations catalyzed and engaged in collaborations successfully. Thus, the focus in the article was much more on the culture, or the norms and values, of what makes collaborations succeed, rather than a strict definition or structure of what collaborations should look like.
The concept of partnerships, collaboration, alliances, networks, or any number of other terms we could use, are of course nothing new in the nonprofit sector. In fact, we are not particular about the terminology that is used to describe collaborative efforts or whether they choose to use the term “networked nonprofit” at all. These lessons were drawn from detailed case studies of successful networks, many of which had been operating for years or decades before we studied them as researchers.
At the same time, we used the term “networked nonprofit” to describe a particular approach to collaboration, one that was oriented around social impact above all else, that emerged from the bottom up by community members in the field, as a way to address problems more effectively, rather than collaboration for collaboration’s sake. The networks were unique in that while they might have been catalyzed by a few instrumental actors initially, all participants worked in true partnership, as peers and equals to drive toward field level impact.
Consequently, they were able to achieve significant commitment, investment and support from participants, and generate leverage on resources and capacity, to achieve mission impact much more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. It is this experience and wisdom about what was working well in the field that we wanted to bring attention to, especially at a time when so many in the field were struggling to scale impact through individual social entrepreneurs/social enterprises by proliferating program/organization innovations, building organizational capacity, scale, and brands.
Nell: How is the concept of a network different than or related to the concept of a social movement, like BlackLivesMatter? Are social movements the same or different than networks?
Jane: I believe that the concepts that enable social movements to succeed are very similar to those that would enable networked nonprofits to succeed. Social Movement scholars and analysts have highlighted four stages of successful social movements which were succinctly described in this article. These four stages are:
- A community forms around a common goal
- The community mobilizes resources
- The community finds solutions (what I call “fourth options”)
- The movement is accepted by (or actually replaces) the establishment
In this respect, networked nonprofits are very similar. The network emerges around a common goal, rather than a particular program or organizational model. The community mobilizes the resources from throughout the network, and based on existing relationships in the community. The solution is emergent and comes from the community members themselves, rather than being pushed from the top down. And finally, once a network is up and running and proves itself to be effective, it becomes the primary vehicle for change, rather than the individual organizations themselves.
Nell: You recently launched a new site offering resources to those interested in becoming a networked leader. What is your goal with this new site?
Jane: The stated mission of the website is: “To champion network leaders, and the networks that they serve, to nurture change on the challenges that dwarf us all.” It’s an interesting story about how we came to create this website together.
In early 2016, I had the opportunity to work with Children and Nature Network to share my research on network leadership through a series of webinars with their network members. Through this project I got to know Amy Pertschuk, co-founder of Children and Nature Network, who found the ideas so compelling that she offered her services pro bono to help develop a web site to share resources.
Initially, Amy asked if we should create a domain name focused on me and my research. I immediately realized that that would be too limiting. In order to achieve leveraged and scalable impact through this website, I absolutely needed to practice what I preach and make the site much less about me and much more about championing network leaders and the networks of which they are a part.
It also made sense to reach out to some of my most inspiring and trusted colleagues who have deep experience leading, developing, and writing about networks themselves to develop the website jointly. We have all worked to build this site to support experienced and aspiring network leaders. The resources on the site have been collected and curated by a community of practitioners and network supporters working to increase the impact of social sector leaders and organizations by promoting the principles of successful networks.
Nell: Is the networked approach right for every nonprofit, or does it apply better to certain types of leaders or organizations? And how can a nonprofit leader interested in this approach move forward with it?
Jane: I like that you emphasize that it is an approach rather than a structure or model. Sometimes people think that they need to reorganize or restructure in order to be a network. Instead, I view it as a mindset and leadership approach that can be used by people in all types of organizations, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors. Though I do believe that it is particularly relevant in the social sectors where the primary objective is, or should be, to generate social value that is not owned or captured by any single entity, in contrast to private sector organizations whose objective is to generate shareholder value.
The network leadership principles focus on: mission before organization; governance through trust-based relationships, rather than top down controls; promotion of others rather than oneself; and building of constellations rather than stars. These can be applied at all levels of an organization, from the executive suite to leaders out in the field. It is a shift from traditional leadership approaches that focus on the charismatic individual who has formal authority to get things done, to a more open-sourced approach to addressing social problems.
Network leaders start with the mission and engage others (especially those they seek to serve) to mobilize resources to support them doing what they would have wanted to do for themselves. It is a significant departure from doing ‘to’ and instead working with others as peers, equals, and true partners.
Photo Credit: Harvard Business School