How to Make Complex Collaborations Work

Something Tom Atlee recently wrote sums up for us what’s happening on the planet right now. “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster, in bigger and bigger ways.”

We live in a world of problems that are so complex — so tangled up with other problems, so non-linear, ambiguous, and volatile — that they defy solutions and cannot be effectively addressed by any one organization or even by any one sector. Problems like reducing poverty and homelessness, providing high quality universal healthcare and education, and slowing climate change and environmental degradation. Problems like terrorism, racism, sexism, social inequality, political instability, refugees, drug abuse, and child abuse.

What then do we do to address complex, systems-level problems? To really address the root causes of today’s major challenges — rather than just manage the symptoms?

Complex collaborationWe believe that lasting change and the resolution of these systemic issues is going to require effective collaboration across silos, across organizations, and across sectors, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants and the shared interests of the collective.

Unfortunately, making this kind of collaboration work well is notoriously hard, particularly between organizations. As Joycelyn Elders, the first African American to serve as the US Surgeon General, said:

“Collaboration is an unnatural act between unconsenting adults.”

There are so many new models and terms flying around for describing collaborative efforts — like Collective Impact, Aligned Action, Social Impact Networks, multi-stakeholder partnerships and more — that it’s hard to know sometimes what people are really talking about.

In our view, however, all of these are different forms of complex collaboration. Whatever you call it or however you go about it, collaboration is about making “we” work. And making “we” work ultimately comes down to building smart, collaborative relationships that endure, evolve, and function effectively over the long haul, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants involved, and the shared-interests of the collective.

Networks are a particularly effective and versatile framework for thinking about complex collaboration. If you really want to dive into network theory , Connecting to Change the World, by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland is a great place to start. The ENGAGE website produced by Monitor Institute and The Rockefeller Foundation is also a good resource.

But while the WHY and the WHAT of complex collaborations often differ, we’ve found that the HOW is remarkably consistent, regardless of your preferred model or what you choose to call them.

The effectiveness of any network or collaborative effort primarily depends on constantly managing a few basic activities:

  1. Clarify Purpose
  2. Convene the Right People
  3. Cultivate Trust
  4. Coordinate Existing Actions
  5. Collaborate for Systems Impact

These five activities are not strictly linear – they loop back and forth on each other, and you must constantly revisit all five of them throughout any collaborative effort.

Let’s begin by looking at how these five activities provide a framework for making complex collaborations work. We’ll do that by stepping through each of them, using the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network (SCMSN) as an example. Then we’ll look at how these same principles can be used to cultivate collaboration not only between organizations, but within organizations as well. Finally, we’ll discuss the unique form of leadership that is needed to successfully facilitate and advance a complex collaboration.

  1. Clarify Purpose

The first step in launching any collaboration is making sure you know why a collaborative effort is needed. The problem you’re trying to address may evolve over time. But to get people in the room to begin the process, you need a clear initial statement of what the problem is that you want them to address.

Design thinking teaches us that formulating purpose as a question prompts our brains to stay flexible and helps a collaboration maintain a focus on emergent strategy and refine its purpose over time. The typical approach we use to helping a group define their purpose is to ask them to complete the question: “How do we…?”

The SCMSN formed because people across the system had begun to realize that to care for the natural and human systems throughout their entire region was going to require a collaborative approach. They knew, furthermore, that the Santa Cruz Mountains region as a social system was fragmented, with historical tensions and significant mistrust.

Therefore, the effort began with a simple, aspirational statement of the SCMSN’s purpose, which is “to help cultivate a resilient, vibrant region where human and natural systems thrive for generations to come.” After seven months of working together, this purpose statement became a more elaborate Memorandum of Understanding, which was ratified by the network’s members in October 2015.

  1. Convene the Right People

Convene the right people means bringing people together who collectively can tackle the problem you’re trying to address.

Like your purpose statement, the people who need to be involved in a collaboration will evolve over time. But it’s critical from the start to bring together a broad selection of people who represent different parts of the system you’re trying to change. As our colleague David Haskell of Dreams InDeed would say, involve and include “the other”.

The “right people” are definitely those who represent the whole system and have the ability to get things done, particularly leaders of their organizations. But they’re also simply the people who show up and stay engaged.SCMSN members

In the SCMSN, members own or manage about half the protected and working lands in the region’s total area of 500,000 acres, and the people who participate in convenings are leaders of their organizations. Network members represent federal agencies, state and county parks departments, land trusts, nonprofit organizations, private landowners including the region’s largest timber company, research institutes, and community and tribal groups.

  1. Cultivate Trust

Trust has become a buzzword. We all know it’s important, but very few treat it as what it really is: the single most important ingredient of successful collaboration.

Cultivating trust is where most collaborative efforts fall short, and why most do not live up to their full potential. For collaboration to really work and achieve the systemic change we all know is necessary, enduring relationships are not a nice to have – they are a need to have.

We commonly confuse trust with “liking” or “agreement.” But in collaborative settings, participants don’t need to like each other – and they absolutely shouldn’t agree with each other on every issue. When we talk about trust we mean trust for action—what we call trust for impact. This is the kind of trust that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, engage in generative conflict, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.

The common wisdom is that it takes a long time to build trust. We respectfully disagree. As long as you go about it deliberately, building trust for impact does not have to take a long time. To build trust requires that we see more than the attributes that make up someone’s external context—what they say or do, their title and organization, their gender and skin color. SCMSN map, March '15To build deep trust and understand other people in an authentic way, we need to get to know their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up every day, the things that have made them who they are.

For a practical look at what it means to build trust, here is a network analysis we conducted just before the first convening of the SCMSN in March 2015. Each circle, or “node,” is a leader in the network. The colors indicate the different types of organizations they represent, and each of the lines connecting the nodes signifies a meaningful connection between two members. As you can see, the region was pretty fragmented, particularly in the lack of connections between different types of organizations.SCMSN map, September '15

After only two convenings – during which we gave people a lot of time to build genuine relationships so we could go fast later – you can see that the system is much more interconnected.

This connectivity is the invisible structure that makes complex collaborations work. Even if the network never met again, the system is much more resilient than it was before, because there are deeper relationships, increased frequency of communication, and greater collaboration between organizations.

  1. Coordinate Existing Actions

Once trust is established, people are more likely to notice, seek out, and follow through on opportunities to partner with other members of the collaboration. SCMSN conveningTherefore, the next step in cultivating an effective collaboration is to identify the work that participants are already doing to address the problem that has brought everyone together, and to connect the dots and coordinate these activities. In this way, members can collaborate around common goals, avoid duplication of efforts, and leverage their organizational resources.

After just one year of working together, members of the SCMSN were engaged in over 40 new collaborative projects that had formed between two or more organizations, in what is described in the next section as the place where self-interest and shared-interest intersect.

  1. Collaborate for Systems Impact

To collaborate for systems impact, members of a complex collaboration must begin by identifying what are often described as “leverage points”—or those places in a system where, as Donella Meadows has said, “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”

In this respect, leverage points are something like acupuncture points—those places where a finely-tuned, strategic intervention is capable of rebalancing and realigning an entire system. In a complex collaboration, leverage points are also those opportunities where participants can have more effect by working together than they can by working alone.

In the collaborative efforts we have worked with, the leverage points that participants have identified for affecting their system or shared problem have frequently coalesced around opportunities such as working together to increase public awareness of the problem, securing resources as a network to continue or enhance their ability to collaborate, or drawing on the strength of their collective voice to influence public officials and policy makers.

Once leverage points have been identified, members partner with others on one or more self-selecting teams to develop and implement a plan of action for generating the influence or effecting the change that has been identified. Members typically join teams where they feel they can have an effect, and where their organization’s priorities align with the shared priorities of the collective. The six active teams of the SCMSN are listed in the diagram below.

This overlap between a member’s individual priorities and the collective’s shared priorities is what we refer to as the intersection of self-interest and shared-interest, and it is critical to the success of a collaboration.

Most complex collaborations require the commitment of people who already have other jobs, which are frequently demanding in their own right. Therefore, serving the purpose of the collaboration must in some way also serve the purpose of each member and the people they represent. Otherwise, in time, members of a collaboration are not going to be able to sustain or justify the extra commitment they have assumed by participating in the effort, and they may choose to leave — which is OK.

Collaborations are living systems, not static machines. Therefore, the teams in a collaboration should not be viewed like the standing committees on a nonprofit board. Rather, they are agile groups that form when a need arises, and disappear when they’ve completed their task. Similarly, complex collaborations are sparked when the need arises, and they may likewise dissipate when their purpose for existing has been fulfilled.

SCMSN structure

To make sure that the collaborative teams actually get stuff done, we recommend that each team select a Team Lead. This function is served for the collaboration as a whole by the Core Team — a leadership function sometimes referred to as a Leadership Team or Steering Committee that is composed of a diverse selection of network members who are elected by all the collaboration’s participants. The Core Team usually makes preliminary decisions about such topics as funding, membership criteria, and external partnerships. The Core Team’s recommendations are then communicated to the whole network for consideration and a final decision by all the members of the collaboration. Deciding how a large group makes decisions can be tricky, but we’ve found that the fist-to-five method for consensus decision making works remarkably well.

Finally, just like the organizations involved in a collaborative effort, the collaboration itself can’t exist in a bubble and expect to thrive. Over time, the collaboration needs to engage and coordinate with other related or complementary efforts, particularly those within the same geography. In the case of the SCMSN, this has meant connecting with the Peninsula Working Group, a similar collaboration focused on lands north of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, a national alliance of conservation professionals dedicated to advancing the theory and practice of stewarding entire regional landscapes.

Complex Collaborations in Organizations

Now that you have a sense of how the five activities are used to form a collaboration of multiple organizations, let’s look at how complex collaborations can also work within traditional, hierarchically structured organizations or systems, such as governments, national nonprofits, or hospital systems.

Trying to change an existing system is often compared to trying to turn a battleship or an ocean liner—not easy and it typically takes a long time, if it can be done at all.

Complex collaborations in organizations

So instead of trying to change a traditional organization as a whole, it’s possible to operate part of your organization like a network — a dual-operating system” as John Kotter calls it, “with all the agility that enables” — while at the same time maintaining a reliable hierarchical system that keeps doing what you already do well.

For example, we recently worked with the UCSF Health system to support a complex collaboration featuring 40 leaders representing 12 sites and 10 health disciplines to improve the coordination of care for people with serious illnesses. Although the context was very different from a network building effort like the one described above, the process, or the HOW, was very similar.

Collaborations within organizations also need to clarify a shared purpose, convene the right people, cultivate trust, coordinate existing actions, and collaborate for systems impact. The result at UCSF Health was a system-wide collaboration consisting of six teams, each one focused on a key leverage point — all coordinated by a six-person Core Team.

Complex Collaborations Require Good Leadership

Not long ago, there was a popular idea among many who are committed to social change that the great hope for the evolution of society rested with the cultivation and funding of social entrepreneurs. Indeed social entrepreneurs and social sector leaders are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.

In case after case, it has simply proven too difficult to fully scale individual organizations to match the scope and complexity of the problems we face.

In sober appreciation of these challenges, we have come to the conclusion that the essential ingredient needed for effective, systems-wide social change are servant leaders who have the capabilities needed to build truly effective collaborations, across silos and divides. We call these leaders “network entrepreneurs,” and we think of them as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs.

Network EntrepreneursLike social entrepreneurs, network entrepreneurs are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle, despite heroic efforts, to scale their own organizations, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem.

The role of a network entrepreneur is to help the members of a collaboration to convene, connect, communicate, and coordinate around its shared purpose. They are able to mobilize a constellation of people, resources and skills that enables the achievement of a shared vision. They operate  not from within any single organization, but in the space between. In this way they are a special breed of what Senge, Hamilton and Kania called system leaders.

To fulfill this role, a network entrepreneur must be able to fulfill three core functions:

  • Front of the house: public interface and outreach, external communications, and fundraising.
  • Middle of the house: process design, meeting facilitation, conflict management and mediation, member on-boarding, project coordination, and network weaving.
  • Back of the house: operations including convening logistics, tech support, project tracking and evaluation, and financial planning.

Just as there are teams of business and social entrepreneurs who launch a startup together, there could also be teams of network entrepreneurs who work together to catalyze and sustain complex collaborations. A team can be stronger and more resilient than any single person, if they too are connected through trust and a shared purpose.

For seven examples of leaders that are generating systems-level social impact in environmental conservation, education, economic development, and beyond, check out the network entrepreneurs series in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Return on Relationships

Above all, when planning a collaborative effort, keep in mind that the greatest investment you can make to ensure its success is in cultivating resilient relationships between the people and organizations involved. Strong relationships are the cause of successful collaboration, not just the result of it. This is what we call the Return on Relationships.

Using Network Analysis For Evaluation and Design – A Mini Case Study

A social network analysis case study of the Irvine Foundation New Leadership Network

The effectiveness of any collaborative group – whether a network or an organization – is highly dependent on the quality of connections that exist between the participants involved. But how can we quantitatively measure the degree of trust that exists between members of a network or colleagues in an organization? How can we strategically build connections to maximize collaboration across departments or sectors? And how can we increase a group’s collective self-awareness and ability to “see” itself?

Social Network Analysis (SNA) allows us to visualize and evaluate the connections across networks or organizations, including the depth of relationship between participants, the frequency with which they share information, and the perceived opportunities for collaboration.

In networks, SNA can measure the depth of relationship between participants, the frequency with which participants reach out to each other for information or guidance, and the perceived opportunities for collaboration between actors. In organizations, SNA can identify the members of the organization who are key influencers and the degree to which various departments are connected to each other.

For a deeper understanding of what SNA can provide, let’s first quickly review the components of a network map:

A node is any individual or organization in the network. The size of a node is proportional to that individual or organization’s influence.

An edge is a bond or relationship that connects two individuals or organizations. Edges can be assigned a weight depending on the strength of the connection. sna-1

For two years Converge helped design, launch, and lead the New Leadership Network (NLN), a network of diverse, cross-sector leaders for community revitalization in Fresno, California funded by The James Irvine Foundation. The NLN cultivated a tight network of 48 community leaders to find common ground and collaborate together on critical community issues.

SNA proved to be an effective tool helping NLN members identify key influencers and potential connections. Network maps filtered by characteristics such as sector, issue area, geography or ethnicity provided clear “shared displays” helping network leaders and members to evaluate the health of the network and shape their network weaving strategies. 

Getting the Whole System in the Room – Mapping the NLN by Sector

By graphing the strength and density of connections over time, network analysis can evaluate the health and growth of networks far more effectively than raw numbers or first-hand accounts.

We first mapped the New Leadership Network just before its launch in 2013, and continued to conduct follow-up mappings every 3 to 6 months thereafter. As the number and strength of connections grew the network analysis validated that our convening-based process designed to build a strong, trusting community of leaders was working. The network’s density was increasing (a ratio of the number of connections to the number of possible connections in the network), existing connections were getting stronger, and NLN leaders were “closing the triangle” and introducing mutual connections to each other.

We often reminded the NLN members that being on the periphery of a bounded network should not be seen as a negative; instead, these leaders are incredibly valuable to the rest of the network. Innovation does indeed come from the periphery, as it often provides access to new information and perspectives, as well as critical bridges to new networks that the core might otherwise not have a connection with.

However, we also knew the NLN would require representation across sectors and issue areas, such that we had the “whole system” in the room. Analyzing the network by issue area and sector allowed NLN leaders to clearly “see” what issues were represented, guiding their recruitment efforts accordingly. For example, the Network’s first cohort was primarily comprised of education and nonprofit leaders. Consequently, the NLN formulated a targeted recruitment strategy to attract more healthcare, government, and private sector leaders for cohorts 2 and 3. sna-2-1sna-2-2sna-2-3

sna-2-4Weaving the Network for Maximum Connectivity – Mapping the NLN by Cohort

Our goal was never to build separate NLN cohorts, but to catalyze one larger highly connected network of leaders that had the capacity to create citywide change. Consequently, it was important for us to evaluate how well leaders were bonding across cohorts. Continue reading

Frequently Asked Questions About Networks

In March 2016 we helped design and lead two SSIR-Live webinars on The New Network Leader, the first on the Network Leader Mindset hosted by Jane Wei-Skillern, and the second on the Network Leader Roadmap hosted by David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman. Both webinars were exceptionally well attended, which suggests to us that leaders around the world are beginning to realize the tremendous potential that networks bring to delivering impact at scale.

Following those webinars, we received over 100 questions from network funders, leaders, and practitioners. We compiled the most common questions and produced the FAQ below to share our responses with you.

Network Basics

What are networks?

Complex social and environmental problems – like reducing poverty, stewarding large landscapes, or providing high quality health care and education – cannot be solved by any one action or any one organization. These “wicked problems” are constantly changing and involve many different groups of stakeholders – each with their own perspectives, goals, and proposed solutions.

We believe that lasting change on these systemic issues requires building networks –intentionally structured efforts to catalyze change in a system by engaging people and organizations around a shared purpose, connecting them through strong relationships, and sustaining the effort over time. Effective networks transcend silos, sectors, race, class, and other barriers to collaboration and progress. They find common ground, coordinate strategies, and collaborate generously, even when there are sharp differences and disagreements.

Examples where networks have effectively engaged wicked problems include improving the rights and conditions of women & girls across a developing country, providing high-quality care to seriously ill patients across a vast Health Care system, and stewarding the landscape of a significant Western region of the United States for generations to come. For more examples of networks working across a wide variety of contexts, see our answers to the questions below.

What are the different kinds of networks?

There are many forms a network can take based its context, the problem it’s trying to address, and the set of people and institutions involved. Networks are usually characterized by their purpose. Different forms of networks include but are not limited to:

  • Social networks: Connect with others to develop personal relationships. Example: Facebook, LinkedIn.
  • Learning networks: Share information over time to disseminate best practices. Example: Palliative Care Quality Network.
  • Movement networks: Engage others to change mindsets, public opinion and policy. Example: Joy of Giving.
  • Innovation networks: Develop and test a new model or a set of prototypes for greater impact across a system. Example: UCSF Health Continuity of Care Network.
  • Impact networks: Identify the major leverage points in a system and act on those leverage points in a coordinated, strategic way over a sustained period of time. Examples: Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship NetworkRE-AMP.

In networks, form follows function – the size, boundary, process and convening design of a given network is adapted to suit its purpose. Organizations can also take a network approach to achieving their mission, without forming a formal network. For example, Interise and Catalyst Kitchens have used a network approach to service delivery to drastically increase the scale of their impact.

What are some examples of different kinds of networks?

Visit At the bottom of the page are eight examples of networks creating positive change, across all sectors and a wide range of issue areas, including urban revitalization, economic development, education, clean energy and environmental conservation, affordable housing, and animal welfare.

How are networks different from coalitions, alliances, or associations?

Drawing from definitions provided by the book Connecting to Change the World, coalitions or alliances are “temporary alignments of organizations formed to achieve a specific objective” that has a defined end-goal, such as electing someone or securing adoption of a new law. They usually disband when the campaign is completed.

Associations “may look like networks because they are member-based, but they are organized mainly to pool resources and provide their members with various services. The members don’t necessarily develop enduring relationships and collaborations, and it’s the association staff, not the members, who do most of the work.”

What is a network entrepreneur?

We think of network entrepreneurs as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs. Like social entrepreneurs, they are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, 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.

How is a network entrepreneur different? Rather than leading with a top-down approach, network entrepreneurs focus on creating authentic relationships and building deep trust from the bottom up. Network entrepreneurs also ensure that the power of others grows while their own power fades, thereby developing capacity in the field and a culture of distributed leadership that dramatically increases the collaboration’s efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability.

Just as there are teams of business and social entrepreneurs who launch a startup together, there can also be teams of network entrepreneurs who work together to catalyze and sustain networks. A team can be stronger and more resilient than any single person, if they too are connected through a shared purpose and trust.

For more on network entrepreneurs, check out the New Network Leader Series in Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Launching and Evolving Networks

What are the key cultural principles of the most effective networks?

We have found that despite huge differences in issue area, scale, resources, and formal roles, the most effective networks all demonstrate the following four cultural principles:

  1. Trust, not Control: Trust and shared values are far more important than formal control mechanisms such as contracts or accountability systems.
  2. Humility, not Brand: Organizations work alongside their peers as equals and willingly take a backseat when their partners are in a better position to lead.
  3. Node, not Hub: Network partners see their organizations as a part of a larger web of activity directed toward a cause, not as the hub of the action.
  4. Mission, not Organization: Leaders adopt strategies and tactics to achieve the mission, not necessarily to stimulate organizational growth.

What are the necessary steps to build an effective network?

The following steps don’t necessarily happen in sequence. Instead, leaders must reaffirm them throughout a network’s formation and evolution.

  1. Clarify Purpose. Make sure you know why you’re building the network. The network’s purpose may evolve over time, but to get people in the room in the first place, you need a clear problem statement and network purpose or aspiration.
  2. Convene the Right People. The people who need to be involved in the network will also evolve over time, but it’s critical from the start to get a broad cross-section of people who represent different parts of the system you’re trying to change. As network entrepreneur David Haskell would say, involve and include “the other”.
  3. Cultivate Trust. Building strong, resilient relationships is a non-negotiable. In a network context, where the power dynamics are more distributed and horizontal than in an organizational context, strong relationships are not a nice to have – they are a need to have.
  4. Coordinate Actions. By identifying and coordinating work that is already happening, network members can leverage organizational resources, collaborate around common goals, and avoid duplication of efforts.
  5. Collaborate Generously. Network members collaborate generously when they stop calculating how much they are contributing to the network based on what they think they are getting out of it. In the most successful networks, members invest time and resources in network activities because they know that enabling one another to achieve a common purpose will benefit everyone.

What are the phases of a network’s evolution?

Networks, like organizations, evolve through five phases. Each phase below is characterized by a key question and a set of network formation milestones.

  1. Concept: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve, our core mission, and who needs to be involved?
  2. Startup: How can we build a strong foundation on which the network can do its best work?
  3. Systems: How do we build operational and relational systems to ensure the long-term sustainability of the network?
  4. Performance: How do we maximize the effectiveness of our collaborative efforts?
  5. Renewal: How does the network continue to evolve to produce the greatest impact towards its mission?

How do networks get started?

Networks are started by people and organizations we call “network catalysts.” They are most often a nonprofit organization or a foundation that sees a need for greater collaboration, and receives or grants some initial seed funding to organize an initial convening and hire an experienced network entrepreneur or team of network entrepreneurs to help evolve the network through a formation process.

Networks tend to evolve through five phases: 1) Concept, 2) Startup, 3) Systems Building, 4) Performance, and 5) Renewal.

To evolve through the Concept phase, the network will first need to go through a deep sense making process to deeply understand: the problem you’re trying to solve, the self- and shared-interests of participating leaders and organizations, the complexity of the system, and the system’s potential points of leverage. Then, the network will:

  1. Clarify the purpose of the network.
  2. Determine the optimal form of the network.
  3. Identify the right people and institutions that should be involved (some participants who have been involved to this point through the Concept phase may leave the network, and new participants may join the network in the Startup phase).

If there is real value in continuing to form the network, bridge funding may be necessary to evolve the network through the Startup and Systems-Building phases to the Performance phase. Components of the Startup and Systems-Building phases include:

  1. Cultivate relationships of trust across the network.
  2. Find agreement on a shared vision and action plan and determine the bases on which each organization will participate.
  3. Establish an online communications platform.
  4. Formalize the network’s norms and procedures, such as governance structures, membership criteria, funding strategies, meeting frequency, and decision-making protocols.
  5. Elect a network Core Team.
  6. Form network teams to advance the strategic priorities of the network.
  7. Refine and advance the collaborative work of the network.

How are networks funded?

Initially, networks are usually funded by a foundation or by multiple foundations or philanthropists. We’ve seen many nonprofits have success requesting grants from existing funders, given that a network has the potential to drastically scale the nonprofit’s impact. Once a network has been formed it can be partially or entirely self-funded through a combination of membership dues and earned revenue.

How much do networks typically cost per year?

A network’s budget depends on the scope of the effort and the level of collaboration required for real progress to occur. We typically suggest this phased approach to a network formation process so that resources are not wasted and so you can remain as agile as possible as the network evolves.

The most effective networks typically require an operating budget of $150,000 to $300,000 per year for maximum impact, given the need to support a network entrepreneur, host convenings, support regular operational expenses, and provide seed funding for important collaborations that emerge.

However, we have also seen networks bootstrap it, working with a minimal budget of as little as $50,000 per year or less to design and build a foundation on which the network can evolve. With committed participants, lower-budget networks can still have a greater impact than any single organization or person could achieve alone.

Making Networks Work

What differentiates great networks from mediocre networks?

In our research and experience, the single most important factor that determines the long-term success of networks is the quality and strength of the relationships that develop between its members.

We also believe that individuals and organizations begin to develop that trust most effectively by working together to identify shared interests and achieve common objectives, resolving the issues that need to be addressed as they arise, in real time, as the collaboration takes shape.

Strong relationships are the secret sauce of effective networks. But what is it that creates strong relationships? We believe it’s trust. But not trust for affection (you don’t have to like each other) nor trust for agreement (you definitely won’t agree on every issue). It’s what we call “trust for impact”. This is the kind of trust that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.

How long does it take a network to build the strong relationships and trust that are necessary for success?

We disagree with the common wisdom that it takes a long time to build trust, as long as you go about it deliberately. To build deep trust and understand other people in an authentic way, we need to see more than the attributes that make up someone’s external context—what they say or do, their title and organization, their gender and skin color. We also need to understand their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up every day, the things that have made them who they are. Building trust quickly is possible. Sustaining it? That requires a shared commitment to working together over time, that never wavers, even when circumstances are difficult and network members don’t agree.

For specific practices and exercises you can use to build trust across networks, read The Tactics of Trust from the SSIR Winter ‘16 issue.

How can network members find common ground and partner together when there are serious, intractable differences between them?

It’s common for people to enter a network-building process with deep skepticism and a laser focus on the differences that exist. But with the right conversations, it doesn’t have to take a long time to realize that there’s actually enough common ground to justify working together. Even if you disagree on nine out of ten things, what’s that slice of common ground where you do agree, and can work together on behalf of shared goals?

In effective networks, healthy disagreements are frequent and part of the process. Explicitly discussing the nuanced reasons why both sides feel the way they do, in a generative, respectful way, is an important part of building a strong network. You definitely don’t have to like everyone or agree on everything, but you do need to be able to hold the tension through difficult conversations and find some common ground that you can work together on.

Additionally, it’s also important to be clear about “gives and gets”, or where an individual’s or an organization’s self-interest intersects with the network’s purpose. Have everyone be very explicit about what they can give to collaboration through the network, and what do they need to get out of it to make their participation in the network worth their while. Although people usually spend the majority of their time in a network figuring out where there are shared interests – and then collaborating together on behalf of those shared interests – it’s also critical for people to be clear about their self-interests, which people are sometimes reticent about stating explicitly, out of fear that it will appear selfish in a network context. We know we’re trying to find some common ground, but if you and your organization or its constituents aren’t getting what you need out of the collaboration, you’re not going to be very engaged.

In most networks, members are free to act independently and to leave the network at any time, as participation is not legally binding. Counter-intuitively, this makes the network more resilient, since active members tend to participate more generously because of the strength of relationships they form with other members and when the network’s purpose and activities align with both their self-interests and their shared-interests.

Are there specific tips for building networks in the public sector?

We have worked a lot with leaders in the public sector, particularly in the education and workforce development spaces, and we’ve found that our suggestions in The Tactics of Trust still apply — particularly, taking time to understand each other’s external and internal contexts, and holding authentic conversations about the things that divide you. Additionally, we’ve found that the key to making collaboration work in the public sector is to be even more clear about gives and gets, or self-interest versus shared interest. For more detail, see our answer to the question “How can network members find common ground and partner together when there are serious, intractable differences between them?” above.

Network Operations

What kind of staff roles do networks need to thrive in terms of specific positions and their duties?

The network staff creates, cultivates, and ensures high quality relationships and collaborations that advance the mission of the network.

Whether network staff roles are covered by one full-time network entrepreneur, a team of practitioners, or distributed among network members, the following responsibilities are important to consider:

  1. Front of the house: public interface and outreach, external communications, and fundraising.
  2. Middle of the house: process design, meeting facilitation, conflict management and mediation, member on-boarding, project coordination, and network weaving.
  3. Back of the house: network operations including convening logistics, tech support, project tracking and evaluation, and financial planning.

What collaborative technological tools have you found to be most useful?

We’ve found Google Docs/ Google Spreadsheets to be the most useful tools for collaborative work and tracking conversations and decisions, so that the network doesn’t have various version of documents flying around and we can all edit simultaneously. We also use Basecamp, and for smaller teams, we really like Slack as a way to communicate and collaborate in real time.

Is there an example of a network MOU that is available to review?

You can find the MOU for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network at, and click “MOU”

How do you define network membership?

Network members have to sign the network’s MOU–to see an example of a network MOU, visit and click “MOU”–and they are required to uphold some primary responsibilities as outlined in the network’s bylaws. For example, this paragraph comes from the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network’s bylaws:

“Each Member organization will appoint one person to serve as the official Network Member, who will participate in Network decision making and coordinate the activities of each Member organization in carrying out the agreements formalized in the SCMSN Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In the event of retirement or a job change, a Member may request through the Core Team that a second individual from his or her organization be able to participate in Network meetings. Until a formal transition has been made, only the designated representative will participate in Network decision making.”

The process for new members to join the network is also outlined in the network’s bylaws. Prospective members can either apply to join the network, or they can be nominated to join the network based on a set of criteria defined by current network members.

Evaluating Networks

How do you measure a network’s health and effectiveness?

We think of network evaluation in four phases: Inputs >> Outputs >> Outcomes >> Impacts. Networks should track the strength of its underlying relationships (inputs), measure the vitality and effectiveness of the network, including the value it provides members (outputs), and conduct an analysis of progress made against near-term goals (outcomes), and long-term goals (impacts).

  1. Inputs are measured via social network analysis at regular intervals, which measures the frequency and quality of engagement between participants over time.
  2. Outputs are measured via a Network Scorecard Survey.
  3. Outcomes are measured via a review of collaborative efforts occurring across the network, usually based on responses to a network vitality survey, a timeline of critical actions that have been achieved, and interviews or after-action-reviews.
  4. Impacts are measured via an ongoing analysis of progress against 3-5 high-level, long-term strategic priorities of the network.

For more information on evaluating a network’s effectiveness, see the framework developed by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor:

How do you measure and evaluate the strength of connection between stakeholders in a network?

The social network analysis (SNA) software we use is called Gephi ( SNA – as we use it – serves to track the frequency and quality of network connections as they evolve over time.

Gephi is free and open-source, and works on both Mac and PC. There are lots of SNA options out there, but Gephi is the best in our opinion, because of its strong analytical tools and relative ease of use. Kumu is also a strong cloud-based SNA tool.

How you quantify frequency and quality of network connections can vary depending on the purpose of the network. However, we typically measure frequency and quality as follows:

Measuring Network Connections

To learn more, here is an overview of social network analysis from our blog.

What do networks look like as they evolve and connections deepen?

Drawing from Valdis Krebs’ and June Holley’s publication Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving, the connections across networks evolve through four stages:

Network Evolution

Innovation Networks

An interview with John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, Rotman Magazine, Fall 2015

The big challenge for today’s leaders is accept the fact that a certain amount of hierarchy is necessary, and to design a separate system – a network – for innovation right alongside it.

innovation networks

I call this a ‘dual operating system’, and it doesn’t force you to choose bureaucracy over innovation. It enables you to operate part of your organization like a startup – with all of the agility that entails – while at the same time running an efficient, reliable hierarchical system that excels in what you already do well. I am convinced that every company you can name that has been highly successful has gone through a stage where it operated with a dual operating system.

The network is not an easy thing to develop or hold onto, unless you know what it is and why it’s so important. Change isn’t easy; we all know that, and the core issue is that people don’t want to reorganize – they usually think the current approach is fine. What you have to do is develop a network with a strong sense of urgency, with its focus maintained on a Big Opportunity.

When it works right, there is an inseparable partnership between the hierarchy and the network. The two systems work as one, with a constant flow of information and activity between them, and significant numbers of people are waking up each morning with a compelling desire to do something that day to move the organization forward towards the big strategic opportunity. With aligned energy among enough people across the network, you have a targeted, passionate force that is unlike anything found outside of wildly successful entrepreneurial firms.

The Tactics of Trust

Participants in a large, complex collaboration can build a capacity for finding common ground—and it doesn’t have to take years.

Click here for the full article, The Tactics of Trust, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Winter 2016 issue.

SSIR_Logo_2013Creating the formal structures that make up an ambitious, multi-sector change initiative is one thing. But forging the intangible interpersonal connections that result in authentic bonds among participating leaders is something quite different. Indeed, it is notoriously difficult. “Developing trust among nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies is a monumental challenge,” John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote in their landmark article “Collective Impact,” which appeared in the winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts.”

But what if it didn’t have to take years? What if it is possible to accelerate the trustbuilding process that is essential to any ambitious collaboration effort? We believe that it is possible to build trust quickly—even across a network that brings together highly diverse groups of stakeholders. tactics_of_trust_imageWe don’t mean trust that’s based on liking or agreement. We mean trust for impact. Trust for impact entails the ability to cross boundaries, to find a slice of common ground, and then to work together despite significant organizational differences and sharp personal disagreements. By cultivating trust for impact, participants in a collaborative project can creatively manage their differences and form relationships that enable them to do critically important work.

We developed an accelerated approach to building trust for impact while working with the James Irvine Foundation to launch the New Leadership Network, a cross-sector network of leaders that aims to revitalize the city of Fresno, California.

Click here for the full article.

Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network

How network entrepreneurs can catalyze large-scale social impact through a process that applies to networks across all systems and sectors.

Click here for the full article, Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Impact NetworksIn The New Network Leader series, seven network entrepreneurs—leaders at the heart of some of today’s most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to the world’s social problems—have shared their accounts of catalyzing networks to create powerful social change. Although these networks take many forms, each has required consistent engagement with four network principles—trust, not control; humility, not brand; node, not hub; and mission, not organization—as well as the following fundamental process:

  • Clarify purpose.
  • Convene the right people.
  • Cultivate trust.
  • Coordinate actions.
  • Collaborate generously.

These steps don’t necessarily happen in order; leaders must reaffirm them throughout a network’s formation and evolution. Consistently engaging with this process helps ensure that the four principles get baked into impact networks as they emerge.

Here is a look at each step, with examples from the network entrepreneurs who contributed to the series.

Click here for the full article.

Network Entrepreneurs: The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of

Network entrepreneurs are ensuring that systems-level, collaborative efforts not only succeed, but thrive.

Click here for the full article, The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Network_Leader_Series_intro_art_196_196Collaboration has taken the social sector by storm. Collective impact, social media, and other tools play important roles, ensuring that the right structures, resources, and technologies are in place for groups to successfully work together. But while these approaches have advanced collaboration in practice, we believe that on their own, they are insufficient for achieving transformational change. In the rush toward readily available solutions to social problems, we often overlook a powerful missing link.

In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.

The new leaders at the heart of some of today’s most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to the world’s social problems—network entrepreneurs—are undoubtedly some of the most accomplished leaders that you’ve never heard of, and they are ensuring that systems-level, collaborative efforts not only succeed, but thrive.

Click here for the full article.

Generate Leads & Influence Your Target Audience with Network Analysis

Applying social network analysis to strengthen and grow the global B Corp network.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) allows us to visualize and measure the connections between individuals, information, and organizations. Applying SNA can reveal how various stakeholder groups within a network are connected, and how information and resources flow through that network. From this, SNA can identify individuals or organizations who are key influencers exhibiting high degrees of “social capital” within a given community or around a given topic. While not a silver bullet, SNA is an important tool for network and community-building efforts.

When paired with emerging real-time and public data sources such as Twitter, SNA can expand your ability to quickly identify promising leads, distribute key messages through the most influential sources to reach your target audience and track online conversations in real-time. Continue reading

The One Thing You Need To Collaborate Effectively

Trust-Matters“The fundamental insight of 21st century physics has yet to penetrate the social world,” Peter Senge wrote. “Relationships are more important than things.”

Human systems are effective when the relationships between people are strong and authentic. Consequently, the most important currency in any collaborative effort is trust. But what actually is trust?

Fernando Flores and Robert Solomon, in their seminal book Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life, make a distinction between simple trust, blind trust, and authentic trust. Simple trust is the untroubled, unthinking trust that young children have for their parents. Blind trust is the refusal even to consider any evidence or argument that one should not be trusting, the kind of trust demanded perhaps, by some religious cult leaders, or that we might feel in spite of mounting evidence that one’s spouse is cheating.

Authentic trust – what we call “trust for impact” – is concerned with the ongoing integrity of relationships, and is mature, prudent, measured. It is a choice, not a state. It is not dependent on mere familiarity. It is something one does – not something one has.

As they write, “authentic trust in business and politics provides ample opportunity for complex and cooperative projects that otherwise would have been unthinkable. Authentic trust, as opposed to simple and blind trust, does not exclude or deny distrust, but rather accepts it and goes on to transcend it in action.”

While there may be significant beliefs that we do not share in common, authentic trust is all about finding the sliver of ground that we do have in common. It means engaging in generative, constructive, and meaningful ways despite whatever differences exist, allowing us to work together even when personal disagreements arise, and even see our differences as potential assets.

For widespread change to occur we must find a way to choose trust, especially with those who are very different than ourselves. Effective collaboration, not to mention the future of democracy, depends on it.

Participants in a large, complex collaboration can build a capacity for finding common ground—and it doesn’t have to take years. To learn how, read The Tactics of Trust, as seen in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Winter ’16 issue. 


A National Gathering of Network Leaders to Help Advance the Field

Earlier this year we had the privilege to lead, and participate in, a convening of 14 of the top network leaders, practitioners and thought leaders from across the country. The idea was sparked two years ago while two of us (Sawyer and Ehrlichman) had dinner with Jane Wei-Skillern after we guest-lectured in her UC Berkeley Haas School of Business class on network leadership. Jane is a good friend and one of the top academics on network leadership in the world. We quickly connected over our shared belief that “there needs to be a dramatic change in the way people think about their work and act in service to the mission,” as Jane says.

The convening was a great success, and just the start of a larger effort to help move the field forward for maximum positive impact. It was particularly interesting for us to see that even with the wide range of issues and varied applications of networks represented in the room, we were all aligned around shared core principals for what makes networks really work – trust for impact, deep relationship, shared values, and authentic conversations. These are the network principals we hope to collectively spread far and wide.

Below is a repost of Jane’s recap of the convening, first published on the Haas Social Impact Blog.

Practicing What I Preach: Creating a network to study and advance networks for impact
By Jane Wei-Skillern

jen-weiskillernI have been doing research and teaching in the social impact field for fifteen years and have met countless social sector leaders over the course of my career. While I am always impressed by the good intentions and the drive of these leaders, only on rare occasions will I find a ‘needle in a haystack’. A leader that works tirelessly with a single-minded focus on advancing the mission rather than their organization, a leader who is better at being humble than at self promotion, works well with trusted peers and routinely advances the field ahead of their own interests.

These are some of the most accomplished leaders that you likely have never heard of. They have helped to generate social impact efficiently, effectively, and sustainably in fields as wide ranging as environmental conservation/climate change, housing, education, international development, economic development, animal welfare, and health, among others. These leaders have achieved tremendous leverage on their own resources by catalyzing networks directly with the communities that they serve and supporting the development of local capacity to serve these needs on an ongoing basis. Continue reading