Funders want to create big change by using networks for social impact. But where to start?
When Jennifer Berman, executive director of the Maverick Lloyd Foundation in Vermont, wanted to re-orient her state’s approach to climate and energy challenges, she wondered whether launching a network of diverse stakeholders, working on different parts of the same problem, could be the right approach. “No effort had brought together a strategically chosen group of folks to think about where the state needed to go, mapped out how to get there, and created the capacity for that group to do work over time,” she said.
Meanwhile, when Shruti Sehra, partner at the venture philanthropy fund New Profit, began asking not just how the fund could scale organizations, but how it could scale impact, she explored the role that a network could play in bridging divisions between different groups in education. She told us, “We saw all kinds of programs expanding their models, and leaders would wonder, ‘How much do we keep expanding?’ Inevitably they would talk about how they could do more together than they could on their own. So we started to ask ourselves, ‘What would it look like if we approached social change from a network perspective? What would it take for social entrepreneurs? What would it take for funders?”
Berman and Sehra are just two of the growing number of funders striving to address today’s “wicked problems” in bigger and better ways, but feeling confined by the limitations of scaling up narrowly focused interventions. Increasingly, these funders have begun to experiment with a variety of social impact networks that could allow them to scale impact beyond what a single organization can accomplish. These networks may have little in common in terms of their design, intent, or issue area, but the way they operate suggests a common set of questions that can help funders decide whether a network is the right approach for them—and, if it is, how to work with that network. In ENGAGE, a web-based guide we developed with the support of The Rockefeller Foundation, we present 10 of these questions as a way to provide some structure for funders choosing whether to launch and support networks—a process that is often fluid and can easily become confusing. Questions include:
1. Where is the network in its evolution?
We know networks come in different shapes and sizes, and there’s no one-size-fits-all path. But we also know that each network will move through certain lifecycle stages, from conceptualization (when you’re not even sure how best to frame the problem or opportunity) to action—including organization, growth, and ultimately transformation. Whether you’re starting a new network or assessing whether to support an existing one, it is important to evaluate which stage it’s in so that you know what kinds of activities and support are most appropriate—and what might be coming next. Do you have a general sense of the social issue or problem that the network would address but don’t yet have a well-articulated point of view for the change it can create? Are you generally unfamiliar with other stakeholders or initiatives that address the issues? If so, then the effort is most likely in the “discover phase,” meaning you must undertake a certain set of activities and roles to build momentum before moving to other steps, such as mapping the problem or inviting new people to sit at the table. Alternatively, if you have already started weaving a network around a specific social issue, and if that group is ready to launch pilots to move ideas into action, then you might be in the “knit phase,” and can support the group’s efforts to move and act together.
2. What network design is most useful?
Networks vary in so many ways that the possibilities can seem endless. Our research, however, identified eight particularly significant variables in network design: size, leadership, governance, purpose, alignment, sector, orientation, and geography. Each of these attributes represents a spectrum; combined, they create a useful set of axes that describe a network’s “shape.” Plotting your desired attributes along these axes at the outset will help you understand which network design can best address the scale and type of challenge you face.
For example, knowing that working with a place-based collaborative will be a better fit for your mission than partnering with a nationally focused network allows you to plot yourself on the geography axis. On the orientation axis, you might see indications that the right approach is more of a learning stance than an action-oriented one. Combined, these attributes will determine the ways your network can contribute to the issue it seeks to address.
3. What type of network funder could I be?
Funders typically provide two major types of support to networks. Financial support, of course, is one of them. But network funders also often provide their time, strategic guidance, and other non-monetary resources—otherwise known as “backbone support.” Putting these two dimensions together, three types of network funders emerge:
The “behind-the-scenes funder” contributes significant financial support but is not especially involved in the network’s activities. This role is most similar to the traditional funder. In contrast, the “roll-up-the-sleeves funder” provides a modest financial contribution relative to the investments she makes in backbone support. This aligns with how Carolyn Bancroft, formerly at the Rockefeller Foundation, described Rockefeller’s role in the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage: “cheerleader, influencer, convener, advocate, and connector.” This aspect of the role, she added, “doesn’t cost us money but does cost us time and human resources to support the network and its growth.” Finally, the “full-spectrum funder” takes a “do it all” approach, combining significant financial investment with high-touch backbone support.
Figuring out what type of funder you can (and should) be requires that you be realistic about the type of support you can provide. How do you know what to provide? Start by asking another crucial question:
4. What forms of financial and backbone support do networks need?
The network’s needs should drive the role a funder plays, not the other way around. And networks might need different kinds of support at each stage of growth. Like financial support, backbone support for a network does not need to come from a single organization, and funders can provide it in many forms. But funders are usually better suited to some roles than others; so precisely which kind of support each funder offers merits careful consideration.
For example, funders tend to be particularly good at attracting additional funding for networks from other interested donors. They’re also good at giving an effort much-needed traction in its early stages. As steering committee member Kate Gordon said of the early days of the RE-AMP Energy Network, “How significant was it to have money at the table? It was huge. Early on, the real value added was that funders were coming to the table, too.” That said, funders should be careful not to overstep their role in guiding the network’s vision and strategy and should avoid squelching network participants’ energy for taking leadership. Ivan Thompson of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation weighed such factors when deciding what role to play in a water network his foundation supported, ultimately deciding to take more of a back seat on issues of strategic direction. “They keep trying to pull me into a more strategic partnership,” he said. “But I trust them. They’re making progress, and I get informed of the gaps so I can fund them accordingly. It’s really hands-off.”
Finding new solutions to old problems demands that we do things differently and ask a new set of questions. There is no manual for social change, and we don’t pretend to offer one. But we do hope to encourage exploration and smart coordination against the wicked problems we face. After all, sometimes the questions we ask are just as important as the answers we find.
Originally published here in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.