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 impactnetworks.net. 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: http://ssir.org/network_entrepreneurs

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 scmsn.net, 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 scmsn.net 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: http://www.networkimpact.org/network-evaluation-guide-downloads/

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 (www.gephi.org). 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