Acting Bigger by Activating Networks

July 29, 2010

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the Strategy Landscape, an innovation that the Monitor Institute has been developing to help funders better “understand their context”—one of the 10 next practice areas we discuss in our new report, What’s Next for Philanthropy. The next practices represent principles and behaviors that are particularly well suited to the more networked, dynamic, and interdependent landscape of public problem solving that is now emerging. They’re approaches that we believe have the potential to become the widely accepted best practices of tomorrow.
 The idea is that if the last decade was mostly about funders improving their individual organizational effectiveness and capacity, the work of the next 10 years will have to build on those efforts to develop next practices that also help funders ACT BIGGER and ADAPT BETTER.

  • ACT BIGGER, because given the scale and social complexity of the challenges they face, funders will increasingly look to other actors, both in philanthropy and across sectors, to activate sufficient resources to make sustainable progress on issues of shared concern. No funder alone, not even Bill Gates, has the resources and reach required to move the needle on these types of wicked problems.
  • And ADAPT BETTER, because given the pace of change today, funders will need to get smarter faster, incorporating the best available data and knowledge about what is working and regularly adjusting what they do to add value amidst the dynamic circumstances we all face.
My colleague Barbara Kibbe will be blogging after the summer about some of the ways that funders are beginning to think about adapting better, so I thought I’d write over the next day or two to explain a little more about what we mean when we talk about acting bigger.
In the report, we highlight five key ways that funders are beginning to act bigger:
  1. Understanding the context. Strong peripheral vision—seeing and developing a shared understanding of the system in which they operate—will be critical to helping funders build and coordinate resources to address large, complex problems.
  2. Picking the right tool(s) for the job. Funders have a wide range of assets—money, knowledge, networks, expertise, and influence—that can be applied deliberately to create social change.
  3. Aligning independent action. Philanthropies are developing new models for working together that allow for both coordination and independence. Funders don’t necessarily need to make decisions together, but they do need their efforts to add up.
  4. Activating networks. Advances in network theory and practice now allow funders to be more deliberate about supporting connectivity, coordinating networks, and thinking about how the collective impact of all of their efforts can produce change far beyond the success of any single grant, grantee, or donor.
  5. Leveraging others’ resources. Funders can use their independent resources as levers to catalyze much larger streams of funding and activity from other sources by stimulating markets, influencing public opinion and policy, and activating new players and assets.
The Strategy Landscape tool I discussed yesterday was an example of how funders are now beginning to develop new ways of understanding their context: how individual foundations and donors are learning to put the problem—not themselves and their organizations—at the center, and to try to recognize their role as actors within a larger ecosystem of stakeholders working on the issue.
Today, I’m going to talk briefly about another one of the next practices: activating networks.
Although the individual grant is the typical unit of analysis for most foundations, the success of any single grant or organization is rarely sufficient to move the needle on a complex problem. We’ve all felt the irony when successful programs are lauded while the system they aspire to change continues to fail.
Funders are well positioned to support connectivity and to coordinate and knit together the pieces of a network of activity that can have impacts far beyond the success of any one grant, grantee, or donor. And advances in network theory and practice now allow funders to be much more deliberate about supporting and participating in networks and in thinking about how the collective impact of a coordinated portfolio of grants can produce more significant change.
One of my favorite examples of how funders are already using networked approaches to act bigger comes from the Barr Foundation in Boston. The foundation’s Barr Fellows program aims to explicitly build a stronger network of civic leadership in the Boston area by providing fellowships and other activities to cohorts of nonprofit and other area leaders. The program offers the fellows a three month sabbatical and a number of retreats and other connective activities, including an international trip, over the course of three years. The idea is to help the fellows build the trust and relationships that, once they return to their jobs (refreshed and inspired), will allow them to self-organize and work together in the future as needs arise. Instead of simply supporting a group working on a single, specific issue, Barr is building the bonds and linkages that create a robust network that can respond more effectively to challenges of all sorts over time.
The Fellows program is just one example of how Barr is explicitly building networks to advance its programmatic goals. In other cases, they’ve used social network mapping to help groups of local green and healthy building advocates better recognize common goals, and have supported “network weavers” to help build local connections and capacity around after school programming.
Barr is just one foundation working on the cutting edge of networks. At the Monitor Institute, we’ve been working with a number of different funders over the last several years, particularly the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, to develop tools and training curriculum that help them and their grantees better understand, build, support, and work as part of networks.
If you’re interested in learning more about how funders and nonprofits can use networks to advance their work, there are a growing number of great resources out there: Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s new book The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change (or Beth and Allison’s respective blogs), Pete Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor’s Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, and even the Monitor Institute’s own Working Wikily article (and its accompanying blog).
Cross-posted at Working Wikily.

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Gabriel Kasper


Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation