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October 23, 2014

Foundations’ passion for grouping their grantees into networks may lead to quicker learning and more efficient operations. But it sometimes leads nowhere at all.

Foundation executives sometimes acknowledge that they live in a kind of information bubble: the signals they get from subordinates, grantees, and the outside world tend to be less than candid, and many are aimed more at echoing the prevailing wisdom than at challenging it. As a result, new ideas that do manage to slip into philanthropic discourse can have an exaggerated effect as they ricochet around inside the bubble. (Return-on-Investment! System change! Capacity-building!) There has been some interesting research on the way new ideas snowball under such circumstances.

One of the trendier ideas in recent years has been “networking,” a notion that has swept across the foundation world to the occasional irritation of grantees, who complain of being dragged into nets like schools of tuna. Whenever organizations in a field begin to proliferate — sometimes egged on by the very foundations that later try to “link” them together — their leaders eventually find themselves pressured to form networks in order to coordinate, collaborate, or at least share their work with their peers. It can produce great results. But often — especially when grantees view one another as competitors and jealously guard their distinctive identities — it produces only extra work, expense, time-serving, and frustration.

Not long ago, at a session of Duke’s Foundation Impact Research Group, the CEO of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, John R. Ettinger, pointedly asked whether networks are “overemphasized in philanthropy.” (This short take won’t do his ideas justice, but you can see his thoughtful presentation here.) His aim wasn’t to attack the idea fundamentally, but he did point out that foundations tend to underestimate the cost, difficulty, and risks associated with trying to network their grantees. And he implied, at least, that funders don’t always have a clear idea of what they want a network for, or how much of an investment it would be worth once it’s in place. He described one network, formed at Helmsley’s urging, that ended up reducing collaboration instead of promoting it.

Mr. Ettinger suggested a helpful way to sort different kinds of networks and to envision the amount of effort and cost each one is likely to require. He started by listing four distinct purposes for networks, each of which requires a different kind of leadership, funding, and structure: Grantmaking (where funders coordinate their giving); Discovery (where organizations share their learning in order to speed up innovation); Scale (where groups pool effort so as to have a bigger effect than they could on their own); and Influence (where they coordinate campaigns for maximum persuasive power).

Some of these can be loosely organized, as when peers meet occasionally, circulate their work products, exchange e-mail blasts, and so on. Others need to be tight — for example, when researchers or policy advocates are collaborating on a common project in which roles and funds need to be divvied up, deadlines met, and responsibilities enforced. As a working hypothesis, Mr. Ettinger speculated that “looser networks are often sufficient when the goals involve learning. Sometimes, they have comparative advantages over tighter networks, especially when greater breadth and diversity are valuable, because they can encourage candor and frequent contact.”

Looser networks can be large and fluid; tighter ones usually need to be small and formal, requiring more trust and accountability. Looser ones are apt to be cheaper and easier to form, so they’re less of a waste if they don’t pan out.

Mr. Ettinger stopped short of recommending precise pairings of purpose and structure. The whole approach, he emphasized, is still tentative and subject to revision. But at a minimum, his framework provides a helpful refinement to the all-too-fashionable idea of networks in philanthropy. And it directs a little creative skepticism to a subject that surely needs it.

Tony Proscio