It's Time for Networks to Work

Sunday, July 1, 2007 (All day)

Cooperating, coordinating, collaborating – all three behaviors can amplify a nonprofit group’s effectiveness in addressing the needs of people and communities. However, building networks reflecting the best of those behaviors is tough, as anyone who has tried knows.

In the simplest terms, a “network” refers to any sustained effort around which many different, autonomous organizations work in concert as equal partners pursuing a common social or civic purpose. If you’ve done this, a good chance exists that you have experienced some uncertainty, even frustration or perplexity at the high level of demand that network involvement places on your organization. In the best of all outcomes, you felt that your network investment produced some larger good that benefited the people you serve and advanced the societal difference you want to make through your organization’s mission.

What sort of network were you a part of? A cooperative network where the stakes are relatively low – no plans for big systems or policy changes, just good information sharing, joint learning and better relationship building? Perhaps you participated in a coordinative network that brings together several organizations to align, adjust or streamline service delivery or to advocate better in the policy arena for laws and regulations that benefit the people you serve. Or, maybe you were part of that mother of all network types – a collaborative network – in which numerous organizations, even cross-sectoral groupings of government agencies, businesses and nonprofits, fundamentally re-frame, re-think and realign their relationships in ways that reshape an entire field, a public policy or a system of social endeavor.

There’s a lot to learn and huge risks involved when the stakes are as high as fundamental systems or policy change. Even the benign act of meeting others in your field can feel risky if you’re uncertain about the role your organization plays, or the security of its position and value in a particular societal niche. Leaders of nonprofit groups sometimes think they have a high risk tolerance. When confronted, however, with the street-level reality that network-driven change might require them to give up something, many leaders re-position to places where the risks feel more tolerable.

Yet, the threat of network failure can grow very real very quickly if groups form a network based on suspect or shaky motives. For example, joining forces in a network merely to meet a funder’s grant requirements – and not because of the intrinsic value afforded by working in concert around a shared purpose – can backfire badly. Leaders of groups without pre-existing relationships of trust tend to do very poorly at looking one another squarely in the eye. They can have trouble anticipating, identifying and dealing straight around the conflicts about priorities and preferred approaches to problems that working in a network almost always produces.

Conflict, after all, is never far from the surface in most networks. But groups that calmly and honestly plan for the management of conflict and learn how to resolve disputes function more effectively, even as they work through the difficulties of moving between and beyond self-interest to common purpose. Genuine interdependence, a hallmark of collaborative networks, rarely results without members risking loss of turf, power, prestige, even money or a long-prized place in a system that needs changing.

Community Partners’ project leaders, some very talented experts and good research have taught us a great deal about the power of networks. In the months ahead, we’ll have much more to share on this front as we move from learning to leading. Meanwhile, bring us your network lessons and share the challenges you face. We believe it is high time for all networks to work well.