Using networks to tackle complex problems

Jennie Curtis

In 2003, Garfield Foundation board meetings focused on the impressive impact of our individual grantees while at the same time lamenting the seemingly insurmountable challenges of moving society towards greater ecological and social sustainability. We began to question the status quo and the usual go it alone grantmaking approach taken by foundations, concluding that business as usual was not going to result in the more equitable, prosperous and sustainable world we aspired to. The urgency of the times demands that philanthropy embrace a new method of operating – one that takes a systemic approach to understanding complex problems and crafts a collective strategy to solve them.

Given its size, the Garfield Foundation was also interested in exploring how it could align its grantmaking with that of other foundations to create a whole greater than the sum of what modest individual grantmaking investments could achieve alone.

In this spirit, Garfield tested the idea that applying systems analysis to a problem with a willing group of funders and non-profit leaders, as equal partners, would result in greater impact. The result was the creation of the RE-AMP Network, which now connects 160 non-profit organizations (including 14 foundations) across eight states in the US’s upper midwest, and is still growing.

It has focused on one goal – reducing regional global warming emissions by 80 per cent (from 2005 levels) by 2050 – and many achievements can be attributed to it [1]. It has helped legislators pass energy-efficiency policies in six states and halted the development of 28 new coal plants – the equivalent of taking 23 million cars off the road. It has increased the capacity of state and regional activists, created a multitude of shared resources, developed stronger relationships among its members, and increased funding for its cause.

From its nine years’ experience, we can confidently share the following lessons from the RE-AMP experiment:

  • Collective intelligence generated in the network leads to more strategic and efficient grantmaking decisions and significantly greater impact.
  • Shared donor responsibility to fund the RE-AMP Network has generated greater strategic coordination, more effective and efficient actions, greater influence in policy circles, agreement on needs which has informed the development of shared resources, coordination of messaging and strategies, enhanced leadership and capacity, and increased programmatic funding.
  • The interdependence of elements in the system demands that the RE-AMP Network develop a culture of learning. Where we succeed, we need to share what we have learned and amplify the success. Where we fail, we likewise need to share, reflect, adjust strategies and experiment with new tactics.
  • The lifeblood of networks is meaningful relationships among members. The methods used by RE-AMP to develop relationships include hosting an online intranet (the Commons), organizing conference calls and webinars and convening professionally facilitated in-person meetings. The resulting personal and organizational connections have created a shared sense of being part of something that is greater than individual members or their organizations.

In 2011, the Monitor Institute named the RE-AMP Network one of the most effective functional networks in the social sector. In its published case study,[2] Monitor identified six key principles that were essential to building such a network:

  • Understand the system you are trying to change.
  • Involve both funders and non-profits as equals from the outset.
  • Design for a network, not an organization – and invest in collective infrastructure.
  • Cultivate leadership.
  • Create multiple opportunities to connect and communicate.
  • Remain adaptive and emergent – and committed to a long-term vision.

At the Garfield Foundation, we believe that keeping the RE-AMP Network robust creates greater movement towards global sustainability. We consider it a successful investment, but we also see it as our learning laboratory, and as such we are willing to commit money and staff time to help it evolve.

We are also exploring how we might apply the RE-AMP experience to other complex problems. If you share our belief that applying systems thinking and building network responses will lead to far greater outcomes than working on your own, or would like to learn more about the Garfield Foundation’s experience with the RE-AMP Network, please feel free to contact me.

1 For a more comprehensive list of RE-AMP supported achievements and a description of the RE-AMP model, see On the Leading Edge: An overview of RE-AMP

2 Transformer: How to build a network to change a system

Jennie Curtis is executive director of the Garfield Foundation. Email

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