Case Study 2: Managed Networks – Coordinative Example
This report is divided into three sections. Section I is based on official documents secured from The California Partnership and covers background information and provides an overview of The California Partnership. Section II is based on a number of interviews with key people involved with The California Partnership and covers a variety of issues raised in the interviews. Section III provides an analysis of some of the issues raised based on all of the information developed about The California Partnership in the previous two sections.
Background and Overview
The California Partnership operates as a project of the Center for Community Change. Originally a chapter of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income and Support, the California Partnership grew out of more than a year of successful cooperation among the chapter’s member organizations, now numbering more than 120. As a statewide coalition of community-based organizations fighting poverty in California, the groups focus at the local, state and national levels on assuring the development and continuation of poverty-reducing programs and policies.
The California Partnership coalesced in 2000 around a collective effort among a large group of anti-poverty organizations to insure that the United States Congress would reauthorize the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. As the groups advocated at the federal level, their representatives realized that they shared additional common interest on behalf of their poor constituents in state and local policy and budget decisions. The Partnership’s advocacy, organizing and education efforts focus on policy and public budget decisions affecting low-income families that have received or currently receive some form of public assistance.
The California Partnership’s chief aims include:
- Producing concrete gains in the lives of poor Californians;
- Developing collective political strength at the state level;
- Strengthening organizations fighting to reduce poverty in their own communities; and,
- Strengthening California’s role in the national debate around poverty issues.
The California Partnership consists of five active chapters located in the Bay Area (and covering San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties), Fresno, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego. Member groups also operate in San Jose, along the Central Coast, in other portions of the Central Valley besides Fresno, and in the Sacramento valley. Organizations from throughout the state have membership on a Coordinating Committee which includes representatives from chapters, as well as from organizations in places without formal chapters. Representatives from the following organizations comprise the current Coordinating Committee:
- California Immigrant Welfare Collaborative
- Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)
- Fresno Center for New Americans
- Latinos y Latinas En Action (San Diego)
- Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness
- Low Income Families Empowerment through Education (LIFETIME)
- Marin County Grassroots Leadership Network
- Opportunities for Technology Information Careers (OPTIC) (Contra Costa County)
- Parent Voices
Coordinating Committee representatives all have signed a Memorandum of Understanding. The MOU details member commitments to meeting attendance, conference call participation, ad hoc committee service, involvement in a yearly retreat, and payment of dues.
Member representatives propose certain legislative bills that they want the Partnership to support. The Partnership extends its support if at least half of the Coordinating Committee members agree. In cases where the Partnership takes a stand on a bill that runs contrary to some members’ views, the Partnership qualifies its support by indicating that the position represents the view of a majority of members. Instead of seeking complete member consensus when major issues arise, the Partnership will resort to a vote and generally require a two-thirds majority agreement to proceed in taking an action or supporting a position.
Activities of the California Partnership have included:
- Encouraging civic engagement by publishing a Voter Guide in six languages in concert with the Mobilize the Immigrant Vote Collaborative and accumulating over 15,000 contacts throughout California to promote it.
- Engaging in a tax fairness campaign that included a extensive education activities, outreach and a tool kit written in English, Spanish and Chinese.
- Testifying and mobilizing support opposing program cuts that would negatively affect low-income families during the California budget process.
- Co-sponsoring SB1639, known as the “Education Works” bill that was signed into law.
- In addition, the group has devoted considerable time and effort to expanding their network by seeking new partners and strengthening member organization capabilities through education and training.
Perceptions Gained from Interviews
Whereas Section I presents factual data, this section presents perceptions of the California Partnership based on a number of interviews. A questionnaire template, adapted to the specific network role played by each interviewee, guided these interviews. Based on the questionnaire, the following broad topics are covered: Purpose, Commitment, Funding, Structure and Processes, Accomplishments, Longevity of the Group, Evaluation and Other Concerns
Interviewees agreed that the purpose of the California Partnership is to bring together a coalition of grassroots community groups to fight poverty in California by working on issues of common interest including welfare, childcare, health care and tax fairness. They further agreed that the Partnership provides collective policy and budget advocacy capacity that members lack individually and affords them a mechanism for aligning their interests and coordinating positions in settings where elected and appointed officials make public policy and budget decisions. Finally, they all agreed that the Partnership works to equip members with the power, skills and leadership effectiveness to make significant policy and budget impact on behalf of the low-income families they serve.
Members pay dues, but only in the last year have the members of the Coordinating Committee signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). According to the Director, the staff wants to assure that member priorities – rather than those of staff – drive the network’s activities. To elicit greater member feedback about priority issues the network needs to pursue, staff has recently begun surveying members.
The Coordinating Committee conducts a monthly conference call designed to focus advocacy positions to take to the state legislature in Sacramento. Members commit to pitching in on advocacy activities, though the Partnership has no mechanism yet in place for member accountability beyond checking in periodically with members and working through difficulties in a friendly way to eliminate or explore barriers inhibiting participation. In one instance a member of the Coordinating Committee was asked to step down for failing to meet the requirements of the MOU.
A common barrier seems to be that members experience and respond to the greater immediacy of their own organizational work priorities and lose perspective on how the Partnership can help them. Staff sees one of its key jobs as helping members recognize ways working through the Partnership can provide them value and concrete results. An annual retreat attended by all Coordinating Committee members helps with this process. At the retreat, members set the Partnership priorities for the coming year.
All of those interviewed felt that the greatest influences in the network come through members of the Coordinating Committee. These representatives commit to making decisions on behalf of chapter members. They plan and debate the positions and platform that the Partnership will adopt. Key influences from outside the network have come from come from the Thursday Group and from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
The California Partnership collects member dues determined on a sliding scale and engages in fundraising through foundations. Foundation supporters include or have included The California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, the California Women’s Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation. The Director indicated the Partnership always needs or can use more funding, but acknowledges that the Partnership must remain cautious about drawing funding away from individual members or competing in any way with them when seeking private foundation support. Some foundation program officers have questioned why they should recommend funding to the Partnership rather than simply to member groups. The Center for Community Change, which founded and sponsors the California Partnership, provides no financial support to the network independent of what the Partnership raises.
Structure and Processes
Five years into the Partnership’s existence, the membership structure remains loose. Some groups participate in name only; other members stay very actively and visibly involved. The membership consists of many different kinds of groups with an estimated 70-75 of the current 120 members described by staff as “active,” though the meaning of that description is broad.
Members in the five separate chapters participate in various ways in chapter-driven events, activities and meetings, all in alignment with the Partnership’s general purpose, broad aims and annually determined priorities. The chapters work independently on specific issues they deem important within this broad framework, but coordinate in various ways with one another. For example, local chapter activists may participate in a multi-chapter training or send their leaders to attend a Partnership-sponsored activity. If the Partnership decides through the Coordinating Committee on any initiative, the chapters must support it, though they have the complete freedom to use their own preferred methods and approaches.
The Coordinating Committee derives its authority from its inclusive structure with representatives coming from all of the chapters. The chapters decide who they will send to serve on the Coordinating Committee with the number of representatives from each chapter varying depending on its size. The Coordinating Committee consists of nine members. They meet by telephone once a month and in person two times a year for more in-depth strategy thinking. The Coordinating Committee arrives at decisions based on what they believe will unite all groups.
The Partnership has a small staff with only a Director and two staff organizers. The organizers serve chapters in their area, sending out meeting notices, keeping meeting minutes, helping members conduct meetings and providing other kinds of support. The staff serve in a facilitative, not a directive role. One interviewee stressed that all members owned the California Partnership, meaning that chapters communicate with an attentive Coordinating Committee and the committee members genuinely listen with the intention of responding to what chapter members see as important.
After the Coordinating Committee decides on priorities, members return to the chapters and work with member representatives there to determine how the broad priorities translate into action locally. The chapters use the timeline of the California state budget process to set up a timeline for strategic local activities. The Partnership staff and Coordinating Committee members, as well as members themselves directly, keep the priorities and positions of the Partnership in front of legislators by maintaining contact with legislative staff members, elected officials and legislative committee staff.
Locally, member organizations that comprise the five chapters discuss action plans, emerging issues and areas that need attention as a means of achieving rough, though by no means lockstep alignment among member activities.
Conflicts do occur sometimes between different chapter-level organizations. Some tensions have occurred, for example, between immigration and African American organizations. Staff has helped mediate these conflicts and raise awareness about organizational common ground and connections, attempting to build levels of trust in the process. An insight shared by staff – which has helped increase trust in the network –centers around inter-group assumptions: often, Partnership members believe they know the “story” or organizational and community narrative of other members, but find they do not until they have spent time at the same table listening to members tell it. Interviewees conveyed optimism that groups still care enough to hear more about other organizations and keep coming to the table and working to see and understand differences.
The Director indicated that most of the time problems that arise say less about members in conflict and more about uneven coordination and communication between the Coordinating Committee and the chapters. Sometimes member organizations in the chapters feel the committee makes decisions and the chapters feel little or no connection to the decision or how it was made. No interviewees raised any concerns that indicated conflicts within the Coordinating Committee; rather, interviewees pointed out that it tends to be the locus of healthy and spirited debate that eventually processes chapter views into a set of priorities.
The Center for Community Change continues solely as fiscal sponsor for the California Partnership, providing fiscal, administrative and record-keeping services. CCC does not participate in program decisions, come to meetings or direct the network in any way.
Interviewees point to the accomplishments outlined in Section I above as a confident expression of the network’s value and effectiveness. Interviewees credit these accomplishments to the collective work of the members operating in coordination and doubt that without the network’s size, diversity and scope anything as significant would have been achieved.
One interviewee noted the Partnership’s achievement, however imperfect and still-evolving, of a “holistic” – rather than piecemeal – approach to countering the diffusion of advocacy efforts that occur between many disconnected organizations functioning in very different environments and geographically dispersed across the state. Interviewees noted the network brings to members a certain intangible value of working together in mutually beneficial ways around an agreed-upon purpose. Members with experience working in complex networks who see value in the network’s results feel more capable in the future of creating and promoting the value of working through networks.
Finally, one interviewee pointed out that the development of mentoring relationships within the network has been important and beneficial to organization representatives and to low-income community members served by member organizations. They saw a kind of “modeling” behavior in the Partnership of what it takes in a community to care for one another and what community members can achieve through relationship building, resource sharing, collective problem solving and collaborative values.
Members re-visit, assess and evaluate the impact of their work at the annual retreat. Subcommittees gather to sort out and conduct after-action reviews with an eye to finding ways to do better on issues in the future. The decision to survey members grew out of this reflective evaluation process. The group has also retained the services of a professional evaluator to provide feedback on a major project in 2005. Partnership members seem to have an innate understanding that policy change has many authors and that it is nearly impossible with 100 percent accuracy to point to a direct cause and effect relationship between policy and budget advocacy activities and specific outcomes. The Partnership does, however, point to media reports, news articles and other public representation of policy decisions as evidence of their work’s effectiveness.
The Partnership conducts leadership training, though on a very informal basis. Issue awareness activities receive greater attention. The Bay Area chapter, for example, holds an annual “common ground” forum that focuses deeply on one issue with the objective of creating greater issue awareness across chapter member organizational representatives. The Partnership has served as a facilitator of greater media capability by bringing in media advocacy trainers to develop chapter savvy in working with media organizations. The annual retreat features workshops on various issues, such as how to build a social movement.
Elements of Effective Network Management
The interviews and exploration of the California Partnership’s background, which is summarized in Sections I and II, produced several insights. These insights apply both to the California Partnership and to other similar networks. This section contains a discussion of these insights that groups creating networks may find useful.
The Partnership operates on an agreement that chapters decide what priorities they will act on and how, provided they act within the broad framework of the network’s purpose, aims and broad priorities. Member commitment to this agreement accounts for the power of the Partnership, particularly in the way legislators and the media perceive it as unified force for change. Well-functioning networks all operate on similar agreements. Some researchers characterize these agreements as having “simultaneous loose-tight” features in that they spell out the ambit of member expectations while leaving room for creativity, interpretation, current conditions and varying capacity among the parties to the agreement. Network organizers want to strike a dynamic balance between aligning action around member commitment to a clearly stated common purpose while maintaining flexibility that respects member history, current organizational realities and preferred methods and approaches to their work.
Absent this balance, which network members and staff must work continuously to monitor and maintain, the advantage of operating in a network disappears. By negotiating broad commitment to a clear purpose and priorities, promoting unified work in pursuit of them, and valuing unified action with sanctions applied only when necessary to deal with members likely to compromise the power of the network, networks maintain strength without overly constraining individual members and have a greater chance of becoming forces to reckon with in the public policy process.
A written MOU, such as the Partnership operates by, serves as an integral organizational element. Members participate in the development and periodic refinement of the MOU and the collective membership of the network insures by an agreement to the mutual accountability of one member to another that everyone meets network obligations. Agreement to any MOU must assume that members, even while valuing the network, will feel pulled by the immediacy of their own organizational and institutional work, a challenge the network managers cited – unsurprisingly – that faces the California Partnership. The danger to the network’s integrity that accompanies this challenges lies in the inevitable temptation likely to arise among marginally committed members – or even just in members facing a temporary crisis that requires their undivided attention to abandon attention to the network altogether.
The best network agreements create an organizing structure clearly expressed in the network agreement in which member realities have profound legitimacy, but which also create expectations of at least a minimal sort that members will engage with and honor network commitments. Network members must act as a group – perhaps through the coordinating committee, and certainly not through network staff – to hold one another accountable. The Partnership staff handles members gently. The group has not had to deal with making decisions to deal with rogue members potentially damaging to the network’s integrity. The Partnership overall appears to recognize that forcing member organizations and institutions through heavy-handed, authoritarian methods to meet their obligations simply does not work in a network environment. Rather, the network members and staff create conditions conducive to relationships of trust in which members agree, on their own volition, to meet their obligations.
Purpose and Priorities
The Partnership’s broad goals embrace the aims of many potential member organizations and institutions. The Partnership’s focus is to fight against poverty. Although this means that a wide variety of organizations can become members, and underlying purpose unites any member that commits to the network. The only tensions apparent in the Partnership have centered on members who lose sight of the network members’ common ties to one another. Committed members and network staff must guide a continuous process of reminding everyone of their mutual connections. By choosing its focus carefully, the members of a network can insure that members will be willing to work together. Network members, for example, need to see how network priorities relate to their organizational mission, even if addressing one or another priority requires the member organization to stretch a bit. The Coordinating Committee in the Partnership appears to be a critical locus of making sure of the “fit” between network priorities and member missions.
This suggests a reciprocal notion that calls upon member organizations to consider and integrate network priorities when translating their organizational missions into action plans. Without this reciprocal behavior, no true network exists. Commitment to the network’s purpose and priorities means allowing that purpose and those priorities to influence individual organizational action. To the extent that network members decide to function as individual organizations uninfluenced by the larger whole of the network, the network weakens and will not function well.