An increasing number of funders today are excited about networks’ potential to coordinate action for systems change that extends beyond what any individual grantee can accomplish. The core question in many of their minds is what it means to support a network. We were excited that The Foundation Review carried that conversation forward late last month with a webinar on “Building the Capacity of Networks,” with presentations from Doug Easterling from the Wake Forest School of Medicine as well as Gayle Williams and Sandra Mikush of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. The insights that surfaced were closely aligned with the funder’s guide to catalyzing networks for social change that we co-published with GEO last fall, as well as the lessons from our study of Packard Foundation’s experiment with supporting network capacity.
One common pitfall of network leadership is the tendency to form the network around a set of goals and objectives that aren’t shared by many of the participants. Easterling noted that this is especially challenging with externally-catalyzed, funder-run networks, which often die down over time as members steadily lose their feeling of ownership over the network’s direction and their motivation flags. A network must rely on the self-interest of its members to thrive, which we described as exercising leadership through active participation by finding where the conversations are happening and taking part as a peer. Citing their work in the Appalachia region, the Babcock Foundation stressed the importance of this point – they see their role as supporting individuals’ inherent ability to collectively seek greater opportunity for themselves and their communities.
Williams argued that a good “network officer” must continually encourage the network to drill down on its core issues, establish a direction, and then learn and adapt its strategy. The best way to do that, he said, is often by asking probing questions in group discussions. Playing that role requires gaining credibility with network’s most central actors, which we wrote about as “knowing the network” by understanding the existing relationships, centers of power, intersecting issues and levers for change.
Last week’s conversation didn’t get to what we see as the final step in leading an effective network: transforming or transitioning the network as it grows. Networks are in a constant state of change, and success does not always mean longevity. We see success in a network’s continuous evolution and adaptation to the needs of its participants—which can mean making hard choices. A good network officer, or any program officer supporting a network, will at times need to either help the network transform by refining or redefining its value proposition, or help it transition by winding it down and repurposing its assets (including knowledge) to support other related work projects.
Our thanks to The Foundation Review, The Wake Forest School of Medicine, and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation for sharing their insights last week. We’re glad to see the art of supporting network capacity moving ahead.
If you’re interested in the full discussion, it’s available here:
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