Almost five years ago to the day, I was lucky enough to meet Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor while I was Visiting Scholar at the Packard Foundation. Peter and Madeleine were the among the pioneers in writing about, designing, facilitating, and evaluating networks in the social impact space. Almost tend years ago, they co-wrote “Net Gains,” one of the first practical handbooks on building and working in networks for social change. Whether it is a network of organizations or individuals, the handbook provides a wealth of theory and practice on build, manage, and fine tune a network. They have joined forces and along with John Cleveland, have written “Connecting to Change the World.” This books updates their experiences and provides easily understandable, field-tested information on how to form and manage social-impact networks.
Way back in 2009, when I first Peter and Madeline, we brainstormed some questions about the strategic use of social media to build a network. While the answers may evolve, the questions are still relevant:
Peter and Madeleine raised some interesting questions about the use of social media and support of network’s work in a brief outline and I’ve pulled a couple of questions to chew on:
- How can social media help a network achieve goals – learning goals, policy advocacy goals, innovation goals, or others?
- What patterns can social media use reveal that provide strategic insight for network?
- How can social media be used to build high-quality connections, a motivating relationship between members and build trust and reciprocity?
Here’s a few ideas, concepts, and insights from the book that resonated.
Generative Social-Impact Network
The book is full of stories about the power of working in networks and the impressive results in solving big, hairy social change problems. They use the term “Generative Social-Impact Network” as a network where there is amazing sharing, exchanging, learning, aligning, supporting, inventing, adapting, and collaborating that happens among members (individuals and organizations). The definition is a group of people who voluntarily organize themselves for collective action to solve a large, complex social problem. They act as either individuals or on behalf of organizations.
Decision-making in generative social impact networks is distributed throughout members. They co-create the agenda and identify the priorities. There is minimal structure or roles and as a living organism, the structure changes. A network is more adaptive than an organization. The members of these networks are intentional about building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships with one another that generates collaborative activities together. The people in the network work together to create new services, programs, products; learn what practices work and what don’t and adopt and spread them. Networks can achieve more – they can advocate for changes in public policy, provide joint services, set up joint purchasing or branding and organize the use of public and private investments. Networks can achieve great impact.
A generative social impact network links people together through relationships. They create social capital or value by making their skills, resources, and knowledge available to each other. Engagement in the network provides a bigger benefit than to the individual member, the networks can work on finding solutions to big social issues. The book points out that a generative social impact network is different than a coalition or alliance – where the agenda and actions are controlled. And they are also different from large scale social movements where large numbers of people become aligned around a cause — take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as an example. As the book says, “movements are big sprawling entities, less focused than a generative social impact network.” The members don’t necessarily develop powerful relationships and collaborations. Both coalitions and movements tend to be more temporary – disbanding when the campaign is over.
The book makes the case for forming a generative social impact network because it can provide adaptive and sustainable capacity with unique advantages, something that other organizing approaches can not fully achieve.
The book describes three different types of generative social impact networks to create: connectivity, alignment, or production network. Each one is different in its DNA. Here are the definitions:
- Connectivity Network: This type of network links people to allow them to exchange experience and information as a result of that exchange learn. It doesn’t do more than that. I have designed and facilitated a number of networks like this, although I have called them “Peer Learning Exchanges.” This is when a group of organizations working on a similar practice have ongoing discussions and resource exchanges – or spend time together to gain new insights from their peers and apply what they’ve learned to their practice.
- Alignment Network: The alignment network links people and organizations to help them create and share a set of ideas, goals, or strategies. They not only exchange information, but coordinate activities with each other as a group that are aligned around an over-arching goal such as improving the local education system’s results. The term “collective impact” has been used to describe community collaborations or alignments of local organizations that want to improve a local system.
- Production Network: This type of network inspires and encourages collective action by members to create innovative practices, public-policy proposals, and other tools or products that lead to social impact.
Each of these network types has different requirements and can accomplish different things, although connectivity is a critical aspect of success for networks. However, some caution is needed. Networks don’t automatically become generative and sustain that high level of member engagement, activity, and adaptation. What’s the secret sauce? The books says it is leveraging the basic human desire to connect, share, belong and be part of something bigger than yourself. It’s adding social proofing or dynamics to unleash generosity and a shared sense of identity.
There is a good set of start up design questions for a network:
- Purpose: What is the network’s purpose for being?
- Membership: Who eligible to become a member, what are the membership requirements, and how many members will be there be?
- Value Proposition: What will be the benefits of membership for individuals and collectively?
- Coordination, Facilitation, and Communication: How will network members link and work with each other?
- Resources: What is the network’s funding model?
- Governance: Who decides what the network will do, how do they decide?
- Assessment: How will the network monitor its condition and performance?
- Operating Principles: What rules will guide the network’s culture?
The offers chapters on how to design and build a network, including a special chapter for funders as well as a rich selection of resources. The appendixes include highly curated lists of web sites, articles, case studies, and books. The appendices also include some useful checklists for selecting collaborative software and platforms, network plan outline, assessment/score cards, and more.
All in all, this a must have handbook for anyone who is interested in building a generative social impact network.