Philanthropy and networks: opening the black box

 

Kerstin Tebbe

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Networks matter to philanthropy. Philanthropy is often about solving hard, complex problems – and so are networks. Funders work with and through networks because they can solve these problems by providing fit-for-purpose models and approaches.

In our work with networks at Collective Mind, we have seen a number of examples of how philanthropy works with and via networks. We have seen funders provide core or programmatic support to networks that further standard-setting, capacity building, advocacy, and/or policy influence on topics of interest, complementary to the service-delivery NGOs they also fund. We have also worked with funders focused on a specific issue area, such as climate change or child protection, who support a cohort of networks working across a range of subtopics to that issue, ensuring broad coverage across the issue and fostering synergies to create systems-level impact. And we have worked with networks of funders themselves, usually focused around an issue area, like media or human rights, and sometimes geographically focused, seeking to collaborate and align their separate agendas for greater impact.

While we have seen a range of ways that funders work with and through networks, we see that they often share a similar problem: they have limited ability to determine whether the networks are effective. Too often, networks are black boxes. Our understandings of both network effectiveness and impact are often limited by the complexity of networks and the resultant difficulties in evaluating them. It is often unclear how effective and aligned internal network operations are to achieve external impact. There are few adequate frameworks or tools for establishing baselines and informing process like strategic planning, governance design, membership management, or network development. As a result, we often have no idea where our network is along a continuum of network capacity and it can be impossible to identify network development priorities.

Tips on how to open up the black box:

How can funders ensure that the networks they support or participate in are effective? We have worked with funders using our network diagnostic framework and network assessment tool to open up that black box. Here are a few tips:

  1. Clarify and consistently refresh the network’s shared purpose. The two core network capacities are shared purpose and membership. The shared purpose is the network’s visionary goal and the reason members come to the network. It manifests as both the goals that members want to achieve for themselves and as the collective value they can only create together. The shared purpose must guide everything the network does. As it is embodied in all network activities, it should constantly be refreshed, continuously clarifying and rejuvenating its vision.
  2. Clarify your network’s membership. Members are the individuals and/or organizations that belong to the network to contribute to the shared purpose. Whether explicit or not, every network has a membership model that determines membership categories, member roles, their contributions, and benefits. To achieve impact, the membership model must match the network’s shared purpose. This means clarifying the who, why, and how of your membership, understanding what the members seek to achieve for themselves, and what added value the network can and must achieve by mobilizing across them.
  3. Clarify what functions the network undertakes with its members to achieve its shared purpose. Network functions are the activities through which a network seeks to capture the combined value that lies within the network and, ideally, create value that is more than the sum of those combined parts. Define what network functions your network is best positioned to undertake given its membership and what potential outcomes those functions can achieve. Your network should foster collaboration and collective action in everything it undertakes.

Funders operate with limited resources. To accomplish their goals, they must ensure the networks they support or participate in are effective. Shared purpose, membership, and network functions are the best starting points.

Kerstin Tebbe is the Founder of Collective Mind.


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