The power of networks

Caroline Hartnell

As I read each article that came in for the special feature, I became more aware that engaging in, and supporting, networks involves a very specific way of relating to others – and one that may not come easily to many foundations.

‘Working with a network mindset can feel at odds with “strategic” philanthropy – characterized by a sharp focus, predetermined measurable outcomes, and a clear path to progress,’ say Lori Bartczak and Diana Scearce. Working with a network mindset, they say, means funding with a clear intent but in a way that is ‘long-term and loosely controlled’; the outcomes are ‘emergent – determined by the network and fostered by the foundation’ and power is distributed. What is needed, they argue, is an approach that combines the best of both worlds.

But why? What do networks offer that is so special? I think it’s all about experimentation, innovation, problem solving. If we are going to find solutions to the problems we face today, we will need new ideas. 

Foundations should by their nature be well placed to support experimentation and innovation, but are they doing it? Mark Hecker of Reach Incorporated, writing for the Council on Foundations blog on 11 October, doesn’t think so. ‘It has become commonplace for funders … to require “proof” before any money is provided … How can a great idea see the light of day without the support of the philanthropic community?’

The advice he received from those in the philanthropic community was that ‘early organizations must “bootstrap it” or “start off with friends and family”’. And this is what he did. ‘Everything worked out as it was supposed to, right? No. The problem: This success is almost completely attributable to my own personal privilege.’ His father was a lawyer and his mother an educator. What about those who are less well connected?

Several of our contributors seem to share his views. Both theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling feel that foundations have changed. Holling regrets the lack of funders willing to support ‘new global-to-local experiments emerging’. He puts this down to foundations having become ‘more professional … more oriented to success and less interested in experiment’. ‘Well-ordered and well-structured ways to deal with familiar problems … work well when the world is stable,’ he says, ‘but are very destructive when there’s a dramatically changing environment.’

West makes a similar point. ‘Foundations … are often seen as … willing to be a bit more risky, a bit more speculative, a bit broader,’ he says. ‘But, with some notable exceptions, they’ve more and more moved into just being another source of funding for things that are very conventional, or they’re so highly focused that anything to do with the bigger picture and a more visionary future is lost.’

Damning judgements from two such eminent and creative thinkers. 

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