THE BLOG
05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Power of Networks: Effecting Greater Impact in the Social Change Movement

There is a lot of talk in the air these days about networks. At a recent conference, activists discussed how the future of social change movement rests in how we network our individual efforts with one another to create more coordinated and unified action - examples of that power can be seen in the past weekend's successful efforts around Health Reform and the turn out for the Washington Immigration march. Today I'm part of a conversation with a few foundations at Monitor Institute about networks within philanthropy and how grantmakers that intentionally put their institutional egos aside and link with others around common strategies and approaches to solving key social issues will see greater impact from their grants. Funding the NETWORK, and the tools and capacities a network needs to succeed, has been a growing conversation in philanthropy as we search for ways to support the kind of social changes many of us were created to support.

I have seen firsthand the power of networks - both in my work as a grantmaker and as a leader at Tides where we have built a network across our various program offerings: grantmaking and donor advising, nonprofit program sponsorship and management, and nonprofit real estate development. In our work with Community Clinics Initiative we have participated in the development of a network of funders in California who fund community health centers and technology development. That work has not only resulted in increased dollars to clinics for technology development, it has produced a coordinated strategy for funding that assesses the big picture in which clinics operate, identifies key areas of needed investment, supports individual grantmakers to fund within their unique constraints (geographic, types of grants, etc), and then shares lessons learned back to the funders as well as the grantees. This powerful coalition has leveraged millions of dollars in a coordinated fashion and positioned California's community health centers to benefit directly from the almost $11 billion now available for community health centers through the Health Reform Act that was signed into law this week.

At Tides, we believe that the nonprofit and social change sectors - and particularly activists on the cutting edge of innovation and social action - need flexible infrastructure through which to operate. Our experience has highlighted that the most creative work in our sector rarely stays within sharply defined silos. Collaborative efforts have operational needs and grantmaking needs. Advocates need both lobbying dollars as well as charitable dollars. People need physical spaces in which to work that enable collaboration and innovation. Tides is that infrastructure and serves as a vehicle through which new and creative activity happens. To realize that vision, we had to adapt our internal structure and create a network. This means that all staff need to be able to work in cross functional teams, that the culture of service and innovation needs to be consistent, that leadership must model collaboration rather than top down decision making, that managers must learn to coach and facilitate rather than direct their staff. All these skills, and the attendant organizational systems to support the work, had to be adapted to create a flexible and fluid network.

Both of these examples require new ways of working and new forms of leadership. From our experience, some key lessons learned to help for m networks include:

  • Leave your ego at the door - this is not about any one person or institution. We must be focused on the larger goal of moving a change agenda.
  • Leadership is about facilitation and connection - new forms of leadership, and new capacities that leaders must embody are critical for moving in a network direction. The old model of the "sage on the stage" is rapidly becoming obsolete. Network leaders must develop leadership in others.
  • Relationship are at the heart of networks - that means that learning how to communicate effectively, disagree respectfully, and appreciate differences in all their manifestations, are skills we must hone. Learning how to work together from a basis of trust will move a network a long way.
  • Networks need investment - whether it is a "network weaver" who keeps the network connected, or investing time in meetings and coordination, the infrastructure needed to keep a network vital and vibrant is necessary to pay attention to as a fore-thought and not an after-thought.

The power of networks to move a global change agenda forward cannot be underestimated. The hope that is represented by some of the emerging global networks (see www.avaaz.org or www.fouryearsgo.org) is remarkable. Supporting these networks is the work we all need to do if we want change to happen on the scale the world needs it to.

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