Case Study 1: Managed Networks – Cooperative Example
This case study has three sections. Section I is based on written documents supplied by NAAFE. It covers background information and provides an overview of NAAFE. Section II is based on a number of interviews with key members of NAAFE and staff. This section covers a number of issues based on the perceptions of the people interviewed. Section III provides an analysis from the perspective of network management and draws from both the written documents and the interviews.
Background and Overview
NAAFE was founded in 1997 to address concerns across a wide spectrum of advocacy and activist groups about the fairness and equity of contingent working relationships between employees and employers. The groups represented such varied and diverse organizational interests as construction worker and other labor unions, professionals from the high-tech industry, university graduate assistants, and undocumented immigrants. In 1999, with the encouragement of a private foundation, the groups that formed NAAFE undertook an 18-month planning process and commissioned a consultant to conduct exploratory interviews with members and propose organizational models by which the group could consider operating.
The consultant’s work surfaced strong views among members for a way to fulfill several important functions the group wanted to address. These included:[i]
- Maintaining the flow of useful information about contingent work issues to NAAFE members.
- Helping shape both a local and a national discourse on contingent work.
- Linking organizations working on contingent work issues across the divides of geography, structure, program and constituency.
- Establishing groundwork for future funder support from NAAFE’s founding supporters.
- Securing non-monetary resources, including enhanced research capacity, staff time from other member organizations and technical resources.
NAAFE members elected to adopt the structure of a managed network or, as they called it, a “structured advocacy network.” The members chose such a structure because it suited the heterogeneous nature of the member organizations. The structure was based on models “… in which organizations participate on a voluntary basis, opting in and out of activities and the network itself according to their own calculations”.[ii]
In 2002 NAAFE set up a nonprofit organization with a three-person “secretariat,” a coordinating committee and several action groups intended to address strong priority policy and activist interests shared across significant sub-groupings of NAAFE members. The organization’s agreed-upon purpose was to develop collective responses from otherwise fragmented groups around the broad issues of contingent work and economic restructuring. The membership of NAAFE meets annually as a collective body and periodically between annual meetings in action groups. Annual meetings were intended to agree on network priorities; report on progress from action groups; approve the network’s operating budget; and elect a coordinating committee.
The coordinating committee was specifically intended not as a board of directors as is commonly understood in classical models of management. Rather the committee fulfilled “political and administrative functions of” NAAFE that include “…drafting a budget, planning the Annual Convention, hiring and supervising staff, conferring with Action Groups, authorizing designated members to sign checks and employment agreements, reaching out to other organizations [likely to share NAAFE’s interests and priorities], and coordinating NAAFE’s response on breaking issues.”[iii]
Action groups were intended to form the vanguard of NAAFE’s work. By 2002, NAAFE had identified four action groups, including Temporary and Day Labor, Welfare/Workfare, Campus Organizing, and Public Policy.[iv] Action groups were intended to meet at least once a year and take responsibility for planning and implementing agreed-upon strategies around issues identified by the group members. NAAFE points out two significant accomplishments of action groups, including “organizing national weeks of action and…negotiations with a major transnational temporary staffing agency.”[v]
The central office, located in downtown Boston, has acted as NAAFE’s self-described “secretariat.” Network coordinators and support personnel in the central office support the action groups, conduct research, help raise funds, maintain a website, serve as an information hub, and fulfill financial and administrative functions. As of mid-2006, the NAAFE network consists of 65 organizations from both Canada and the United States.[vi]
Decision-making in NAAFE operates on a principle that one of the network members referred to as “subsidiarity.” This refers to the idea that decisions are made at the level as close as possible to those affected. In other words, members of the action groups make the decisions that affect the various sectors represented by the issues; the coordinating committee makes decisions for all members of NAAFE in between the membership meetings; all members, at the regular membership meetings, make decisions affecting all members of NAAFE.
One exception to the network model was the creation of an elected negotiating team to engage with a large temporary industry transnational corporation. The team was elected at a NAFFE General Meeting in 2001. Its mandate was to engage the transnational corporation to adopt a Code of Conduct for staffing industry employers and report back the next year at the following General Meeting. Unfortunately, NAFFE could not have a General Meeting for funding reasons, until 2004. This extended the life of the negotiating team beyond its mandate and did not allow for a thorough review of its work and, as it turned out, what appear to be redefined objectives for the negotiations. In the meantime, members who were provided with short periodic reports, initially welcomed the prospect of an agreement with the corporation. Later, as the negotiations extended beyond the expected timeline for an agreement, members became disillusioned and appear to have lost confidence in the negotiation process.
Another important constituency impacted by the negotiations and the failure to produce a joint declaration with the transnational corporation, was the funding community, with one program officer explicitly citing the failure to achieve an agreement as cause for the foundation deciding against renewed funding.
The French American Charitable Trust (FACT) and Solidago Foundation granted the early funds that supported NAAFE’s formative activities. Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation subsequently provided grants.
Certain tensions among groups with differing missions characterized early convenings of NAAFE members. To manage the tension, NAAFE developed a set of strategies based on what one early member called a “frame” to meet the objectives of groups finding themselves in tension. The frame was used as a way of defining contingent work in a way that incorporated both the interests of the public and served to unite the organizations and activists in NAAFE who approached the issue from different perspectives. The idea is that organizations in NAAFE can still disagree, but this doesn’t disturb the effective functioning of NAAFE. The frame that was developed is reflected in NAAFE’s founding report, “Contingent Workers Fight for Fairness”.[vii] A core unresolved issue with the focus on the framingfunction for the network was how to defuse the frame when individual network members concentrate on “base building” (i.e. direct work with their targeted constituency) and very few, if any, on engaging the media or the public outside of the constituency.[viii]
NAAFE members see several challenges facing the network today. Some of these have roots in the external environment such as changes in economic and political conditions, and some are from their internal environment such as increased demands on members’ time, the need for members to produce concrete results which can be achieved more easily at the local level than through a national organization such as NAAFE, turnover in staff and representatives of the different member organizations, and shifting priorities of the member organizations. Nonetheless, NAAFE feels it has achieved a number of accomplishments through its different activities that include disseminating information, building a broad backing for proposed legislation, sharing the knowledge that exists in the various member organizations, responding rapidly to emerging issues and in supporting other networks.[ix]
Some of the original funders no longer grant to NAAFE and concerns have arisen both about general fundraising to support functions of the central office, and about assessing dues to member groups. In order to maintain some of the core information functions of the network and its secretariat in a funding environment that no longer permits a full-time staff, the coordinating committee, functioning as a board, voted to transfer these functions to Massachusetts Global Action. The latter is a multi-issue nonprofit organization concerned about corporate globalization. It has taken on NAAFE as a project in its “Jobs and the Economy Program.”
Key groups within NAAFE include:
- National Employment Law Project
- Southwestern Center for Economic Integrity
- Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment
- International Writers Union (with UAW)
- California Faculty Association
- Working Alliance of Technology of Workers
- National Day Laborers Organizing Network
- Nine to Five
Current activities of NAAFE include:
- Project reexamining the state of the contingent workers’ movement and its relationships to other issues.
- Work in the areas of social justice, community development and change.
- Published a book: “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower” regarding issues concerning faculty.
- Work on immigration: with the National Day Laborers and Writers Union
- Networking components and work on remittances
- Regular monitoring of news regarding day laborers and immigration issues
- Developed a delegation of 50 people to go to a world Social Forum/Caucus on issues in globalization in January, 2006
- Coordinated a focus on immigration in New England regarding the anti immigration movement issues
Perceptions Gained from Interviews
Whereas Section I presents factual data, this section presents perceptions of NAAFE based on a number of different interviews. A questionnaire template guided these interviews, although in several of the interviews, this template was adapted to meet the specific involvement in NAAFE of those interviewed. Based on the questionnaire, the following broad topics are covered: Purpose, Commitment, Funding, Structural/Administrative Concerns, Accomplishments, Longevity of NAAFE, and Other Concerns
According to the perception of those interviewed, NAAFE’s purpose is to promote the rights of low-income workers and to look at issues concerning contingent workers. Although they have achieved the purpose of pulling together a number of very different groups, the problem that most of those interviewed perceive is that NAAFE is trying to be all things to all people. Because there are so many different interests represented in NAAFE, a sense emerged for interviews that NAAFE lacks a cohesive, coherent and consistent program, though its “program” was ever and always intended – though perhaps not well communicated – to serve as a forum for shared purpose and collective interest rather than to execute any specific program. Many representatives that started with the group have left because they felt their “interests” were not represented. Some of this is related to the perception the foundations that funded the early operation of NAAFE substituted their “agenda” for an indigenous NAAFE agenda, leaving NAAFE inflexible and constrained.
There is a core group of organizational representatives within NAAFE who are very committed to its work. However, there are many other groups whose commitment relies on their interest in particular issues of immediate import. As noted above, many groups have withdrawn because they were not interested in the issues being discussed at the time and felt they lacked the time to devote to wider interests than those of particular priority interest to them at any given moment. Waxing and waning commitment seems connected to the issue of perceived, potential or actual undue influence of funders, even those not funding NAAFE directly, but that fund NAAFE member groups. It’s perceived that if the foundations do not feel the issue is worth pursuing, then the member organization does not pursue it. Finally, as staff within the member organization changes, so does the member commitment to NAAFE.
Everyone interviewed recognized the implications associated with the absence of any additional support from the initial funding group that supported the establishment of NAAFE. Although, in the past, large foundations funded NAAFE, their support is now finished and has been replaced in part by that of smaller foundations with that source, too, diminishing. NAAFE staff, at the time of the interviews, was engaged in a fundraising effort to try to increase the level of grant and other support. Some suggestions have been made to encourage the member groups to contribute funding, including paying dues, but this has met with a general low level of interest and has not occurred. One cause of diminished foundation support, interviews suggest, lies in the fact that past funders who once saw American workforce issues defined in terms of the challenges faced by contingent workers have redefined their programs and their interests in new ways. Leadership at one major foundation has changed entirely and the program staff of another changed several years ago, further attenuating a sense of connection between foundation program priorities and NAAFE priorities. A primary recent funder has been the French-American Charitable Trust (FACT) with Solidago Foundation supplying some funds as well.
All those interviewed understand how the official organization structure, intended as a network, was discussed, debated and agreed upon as a fitting course of action. However, within the understanding of a network frame, interviews surfaced several issues related to the actual operation of NAAFE. These issues include the relationship between staff and the members, the role/authority of the coordinating committee, and the leadership of NAAFE.
a. The relationship between staff and the members:
Although NAAFE members are supposed to provide the network’s leadership, inconsistent leadership strength means NAAFE staff members step in more aggressively when strength is low and replace member initiative with staff initiative. The action groups do most of the work in terms of determining what issues to pursue. However, they have come to rely increasingly on the staff to set their agenda and provide follow-through. Since there are no sanctions placed on members for not participating, many members of the action groups just stop participating if they do not agree with the discussion and/or the issue being discussed.
b. Role/authority of the coordinating committee:
The coordinating committee’s role is written into the bylaws. Its official role is to guide the network and provide oversight and administration for the staff. However, questions remain about the coordinating committee’s precise role. This ambiguity has placed the coordinating committee’s role in limbo with staff, therefore, assuming what members might otherwise expect would be the committee’s work. Interviewees felt that the coordinating committee should serve to assure that the network structure is viable, but that it has no real authority to follow-up or sign off on what is done. An additional concern, expressed by one of the network coordinators, is the capacity of the coordinating committee to provide staff supervision without directly familiar with the day-to-day or even month-to-month activities of the secretariat. This problem is exacerbated where the staff has no mechanism to resolve different understandings of their role and obligations to the network.
c. Leadership of NAAFE:
Some interviewees felt the decentralized nature of the network leaves NAAFE without any real leadership. Members attend national meetings annually, and many decisions are made there. However, as indicated above, only a core group of members have taken an active interest in pursuing the larger purpose that informed the creation of NAAFE, not to mention assuming work loads in their own organizations, with paid NAAFE staff doing most of the follow-up execution. With planning done at the annual national meeting and intended to be implemented through the action groups, interviewees saw action groups disband when, if inadequately guided from within, they had no where else to turn for leadership. At the time of this case study, only the faculty equity issues action group was active. Interviewees suggested that without a long-range vision and stronger leadership NAAFE would be unable to sustain itself. Accountability is another concern and interviewees suggested that there was, perhaps, not sufficient discipline or structure to formulate or guide an overall vision for NAAFE.
Later perceptions from NAAFE coordinators indicated that they observed a vague relationship between leadership and accountability when neither of the two is carefully defined. More importantly, they observed, as founding debates over structure receded and NAAFE member staff turned over, new member perceptions of the network’s role informed the debate on leadership and accountability. For many members, NAAFE needed to become more of a campaign-like organization with very definite, achievable objectives and a staff/executive director-like organization rallying member organizations behind a program.
The leadership/accountability issue also manifested itself when the coordinating committee had to determine priority areas for the secretariat: the coordinating committee unanimously accepted the need to narrow the focus of the network activities when the staff was reduced to two people and had funding sufficient only for several more months of activity.
Overall, interviews suggested that NAAFE accomplished a great deal by bringing together very different groups, facilitating an exchange of ideas and information, publishing several key works and setting up and maintaining a good and useful web site. NAAFE provided a vehicle for organizing several valuable activities, the most successful mentioned being a biannual continental contingency faculty organizing week, Campus Equity Week. NAAFE negotiations with the temporary worker industry have occurred, but nothing definitive has emerged. NAAFE was involved in a spin-off activity, the National Day Laborer Action Network, and made great strides in framing a national discussion on contingent work that caused decision makers to think about the issue in new ways.
A number of reasons were given for the longevity of NAAFE, key among them:
- The vision and leadership of Tim Costello who played a pivotal role in the origination of the founding ideas and approach to NAAFE.
- The visibility, engagement and hard work of NAAFE staff;
- The singular nature of NAAFE and its unique availability as a place to gather a wide spectrum of contingent work stakeholders, share ideas and exchange information;
- The value to individual member organizations of NAAFE in the ways the network serves their individual organizational purposes;
- The forum NAAFE provides in which groups can connect, keep alive interest in an important workforce issue, and discover new relationships; and,
- Outside funding support from foundations.
Elements of Effective Network Management
Based on the information and views elicited in interviews and summarized in Sections I and II, a number of issues arose peculiar to NAAFE, but applicable in viewing other, similar networks. This section contains a discussion of these issues, as well as recommendations likely to be of use to people involved in the formation, operation or trouble-shooting of other networks.
The Role of Foundations
Based on several of the interviews, two key issues arose concerning the role of external drivers like grant making foundations as catalysts for the formation of networks. The two are actually intertwined and become, in effect, a “Catch-22.” On one hand, funding by resource suppliers as foundations can be critical to the emergence or survival of a network. On the other hand, the foundation’s power as a driver of priorities and supplier of resources can compromise a purposeful gathering of interests based chiefly on a sense of mutual interdependence, irrespective of available resource. One difficulty, as shown by NAAFE, lies in the possibility of over-reliance on foundations for the network’s funding. Member groups may have committed time and energy, but funder dependency can ensue in the absence of hard materiel, cash resources and action commitments from members tied to and aligned with agreed-upon network priorities.
Whether compelled to work together by previous histories of conflict or by a recognition that they cannot realize their individual missions without linking in common purpose with a host of other organizations, agencies, institutions and stakeholders, groups in networks bind more firmly if internal drivers inform cooperative, coordinative or collaborative action. Networks can and do work with foundation support, but the priorities of an outside resource supplier supplanting internal drivers attenuates authentic engagement and jeopardizes network purpose and cohesion. Absent strong internal impetus experienced individually by members and shared across the membership, networks weaken quickly. Similarly, if an outside group is the main source driving accountability to certain priorities, network members may lose sight of what is most important to them. Entering the realm of urging creation of and supporting networks, foundations must negotiate a delicate balance that takes into account the inherent power any funder holds, the funder prerogative to hold grantees accountable for results, and the larger societal purpose the funder believe supporting the network will achieve.
In NAAFE’s case, another issue surfaced involving the difference between a network that is the product of a grassroots movement and one that is driven by outside funders appreciative of movement behavior, but not acting as practical engagees along with the network members. Some interviewees expressed the view that NAAFE could be neither flexible in the face of nor responsive to individual member concerns because of the need to meet funder performance requirements attached to grant dollars.
Suffice to say that, in some instances, foundations have begun to work more closely with member organizations in setting agendas for networks. In other instances, foundations are trying to revise their requirements to allow for more flexibility. In general, these issues will require more work, not only by foundations involved with networks, but also through greater coordination between organizations involved in networks and the foundations that see networked action involving multiple groups as a useful means of advancing their larger purposes. At the very least, network participants need to recognize, balance and even take measures to counter the inevitable pitfalls or trade-offs of choosing support for networked action from foundations and other institutional funders.
Commitment of Member Organizations
Concerns – and even lingering confusion – about commitment to the larger network purpose surfaced as individual NAAFE members appeared more concerned with their own organizational interests and projects than with the intent of pursuing the overall formative purpose agreed to at NAAFE’s founding. Member perceptions of the network could not always easily reconcile the intentionally loose nature of the network and their instinctive expectation, perhaps bred in and carried over from classical management environments, that “leadership” in NAAFE was weak or attenuated and needed to be strong and centralized. Facilitative leadership – as opposed to executive, directive leadership – might have better capitalized on strong individual member commitments and helped frame opportunities to bring them into alignment with the interests of other groups equally strongly committed to the network purpose.
This suggests that, although a network is purposely a loose type of organizational structure, it cannot satisfy all needs of all groups who might have an interest in its work. Different types of networks require different kinds of member commitments. Groups forming networks must be clear early on about the reasons for joining or even creating the network in the first place. Network charters and so-called “relational contracts” can serve as useful course- and commitment-setting agreements. Discussions intended to drive the intent and content of these agreements must surface expectations long before productive work at a high level of collaborative productivity can occur. Networked groups often choose to operate a lower levels of risk – cooperatively or in a coordinated way – before moving to the higher levels of risk associated with genuine collaboration and the paradigm- and system-shifting trade-offs collaboration often involves. Less risk-intensive efforts provide the basis for a clearer understanding to still emerge from action even as member groups advance collectively agreed-to purposes and priorities. In addition, rather than just an individual focus on the network, the members can begin to commit to an overall purpose reflective of what they want to achieve with the network that they could not or cannot achieve independently.
One of the interesting dilemmas in NAAFE is the emphasis on the involvement of all members in making decisions. This has resulted in two main concerns. First, who has the authority to make decisions? And, second, what is the relationship between the members (on the coordinating committee and in the action groups) and the staff. For NAAFE, these concerns have led to a lack of a clear decision-making structure and a reliance on staff to do much work that might better have been done by and within the member organizations.
Although a network is considered a flexible type of organizational structure, this does not mean that no one has the authority to make decisions. It is possible to over-emphasize a collective decision-making process while, as in NAAFE’s case, members remain unclear as to their roles and responsibilities. Such lack of clarity can sap member commitment to a broad purpose even they felt energetically committed to pursuing at the outset. Allowing for consensus and flexibility does not necessarily translate to no one in the organization having any authority. The difficulty is deciding, at the start, the limits of authority and the way in which members will be able to use authority for the benefit of the network’s formative purpose.
A network like NAAFE relies on the voluntary cooperation of its members and grants a certain authority, based on trust and practical performance, to a facilitative staff or even outside experts like trainers or mediators or people with particular content expertise. To the extent that staff can alleviate this burden for the members, members are likely to perceive them as valuable assets to the organization. Indeed, without commitments to and resources for staffing, most networks will not last very long. The difficulty is to determine and know the extent to which staff should make decisions and when members should make decisions – when staff is acting with facilitative intent and when they are acting with executive intent that assume authority not granted them. Typically, if high levels of member commitment exist, staff work becomes ministerial and facilitative. Where motivation and commitment to the network’s purposes erode or fail, work may fall to a core group of members with other priorities and very tight time constraints and lead to reliance on staff to assume more primary work. Network members can find that clear guidelines and fair sanctions, established early on, become useful mechanisms for dealing with or separating entirely non-contributing members.
Critical to the effectiveness of this approach, however, is a process for agreement at the outset among network members; a way to memorialize agreement in a charter or relational contract; routine reflection on the meaning and practice of the agreement among members of long-standing; and, orientation of new members to the agreements and their meaning in the culture of the network as they join and especially if they lack exposure to the history and emergent processes of the network.
[i] This information is taken from the document: “Making Networks Work: Preliminary observations from NAAFE’s structured advocacy network”, a draft for discussion prepared by NAAFE staff members (Tim Costello, Kim Foltz, and Suren Moodliar) and Jeremy Brecher, who regularly works with NAAFE. Details of these functions can be found in this document on page 13.
[ii] Taken from the above document, page 2
[iii] See page 16 of above document.
[iv] In 2002 the Public Policy and Welfare/Workfare Action Groups merged
[v] See page 3 of above document
[viii] This is particularly important in the context of determining resource (especially, staff time) allocation. Should the staff help develop a frame and then hope for its diffusion into the universal ether? Or, should they work with members to develop a frame and thereafter actively promote that frame to the available cultural organs (e.g. national media, local and regional opinion makers, selected subcultures)? This issue went unresolved and hampered the effectiveness of both the secretariat and the network itself, in the estimation of the two remaining staff people, Kim Foltz and Suren Moodliar.
[ix] For instance, they have supported the growth of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and regional campus-based networks. (See page 24 of above document)