Networks that Work, Second Ed
A Practitioner's Guide to Managing Networked Action
by Paul Vandeventer, President & CEO, Community Partners
and Myrna Mandell, Ph.D.
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Why Networks that Work Now?
As investors like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pool resources to tackle global issues on an enormous scale, others are realizing the need for similar collective action commensurate with the scale of their missions. In the simplest terms, a “network” refers to any sustained effort around which different, autonomous organizations work in concert as equal partners in pursuit of a common social or civic purpose. Independent organizations, agencies and institutions are more than ever likely to form networks to tackle environmental, health care, childhood, aging and any number of other crises. Their leaders recognize the need to leverage relationships of trust formed with other leaders to extend limited resources and amplify on-the-ground results. And these joint efforts are expanding beyond any particular sector. Nonprofits are working with businesses, philanthropies with governmental agencies, and loose-knit activist and community groups with well-established institutions.
Unfortunately, coming together doesn’t always mean working together. Some networks frankly don’t work. In fact, a network can be a double-edged sword. Whether it is the result of faulty motivation – to meet a funder’s requirement, for example – or the inability to overcome past histories, failed networks can squander resources, including trust, time and momentum.
But honest self-assessment, careful planning, clear understandings and conflict resolution and management can help avoid and overcome obstacles. The three case studies abbreviated in the appendix and fully fleshed out below provide excellent examples of how a few groups created networks that really work and the success they can achieve.
The Genesis of Networks that Work
This guide is a compilation of years of observation and experience. As do many helpful tools, this one emerged from frustration and perplexity. At Community Partners, where scores of civic initiatives incubate and receive fiscal sponsorship under our umbrella, we repeatedly saw alliances and coalitions of nonprofit groups form, struggle and, too often, fail. Digging deeper for causes, we realized that many leaders undertaking these ventures defaulted to classical organizational planning and management approaches that simply did not work when large groups of autonomous organizations with strong-willed leaders sought to work together. Networks, we discovered, seemed to do better when tended by the deft and gentle hand of a facilitator, rather than the executive hand of a director.
For successful networks, negotiating trade-offs in organizational interests was more the norm than was the necessary fretting essential in organizational boards and staffs over mission and vision statements, goals, objectives and action plans. Conflict, we realized, was never far from the surface in most networks. But groups that deliberately expected and planned for the management of conflict functioned effectively, even as they worked through the difficulties of moving from self-interest to common purpose.
We saw the degree to which pre-existing relationships among network members mattered fundamentally to network success. And we realized that the genuine interdependence that is the mark of a collaborative network rarely resulted without members risking loss of turf, power, prestige, even money or a long-prized place in a system that needed changing. We saw a growing need to share these lessons with any and all considering or navigating a network venture.
How to Use This Guide
If your organization has joined or is considering a networked effort with other groups, if the scale of your mission seems too daunting, too important to tackle alone, if you’re looking to leverage your resources and amplify your organizational power, this book is for you. It covers a range of issues to consider before you decide to network, as you create a network and while you pursue networked action – all designed to help your network work.
This book is not, nor could it be, a complete guide to your network, but it does provide tools you’ll need to evaluate your options. Also included are rich case studies that bring those options to life, checklists and essential questions to inform your choices, samples of critical materials you’re free to use, web links to full case studies of other networks, and a list of other available resources.
It is our hope that this booklet will serve as a helpful resource, one that you will continue to use as you consider, form and evolve your network.
And please, let us know your thoughts. Your feedback will help ensure that any future editions continue to reflect the most current needs and best practices of the full range of networks. Please forward your comments to networks@CommunityPartners.org.
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