Something new and important is afoot. Nonprofit and philanthropic organizations are under increasing pressure to do more and to do better to increase and improve productivity with fewer resources. Social entrepreneurs, community-minded leaders, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropists now recognize that to achieve greater impact they must adopt a network-centric approach to solving difficult problems. Building networks of like-minded organizations and people offers them a way to weave together and create strong alliances that get better leverage, performance, and results than any single organization is able to do. While the advantages of such networks are clear, there are few resources that offer easily understandable, field-tested information on how to form and manage social-impact networks. Drawn from the authors’ deep experience with more than thirty successful network projects, Connecting to Change the World provides the frameworks, practical advice, case studies, and expert knowledge needed to build better performing networks. Readers will gain greater confidence and ability to anticipate challenges and opportunities. Easily understandable and full of actionable advice, Connecting to Change the World is an informative guide to creating collaborative solutions to tackle the most difficult challenges society faces.
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About the Author
Peter Plastrik is cofounder and Vice-President, Innovation Network for Communities (INC), a nonprofit national network of community system innovators. A prolific author, Peter wrote Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government and The Reinventor’s Fieldbook: Tools for Transforming Your Government with coauthor David Osborne. Madeleine Beaubien Taylor, Ph.D., has conducted policy and evaluation research for the public and nonprofit sectors since 1987. She has consulted to governments, universities, and foundations as well as to community-based nonprofits, on issues that include culture and the environment, community economic development and nonprofit network-building. John Cleveland is President and a founder of the Innovation Network for Communities (INC).
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Connecting to Change the World
Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact
By Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, John Cleveland
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2014 Peter Plastrik
All rights reserved.
The Generative Network Difference
Networks have unique capabilities for achieving social impact that distinguish them from other forms of social organizing, and generative social-impact networks are particularly suited for addressing complex problems.
The urgency and scale of social problems, coupled with the limited results to date, cry out for new approaches.
— Jane Wei-Skillern, Nora Silver, and Eric Heitz, "Cracking the Network Code"
Many social-impact networks burst into life out of an unpredictable mash-up of like-minded people who share a problem, get together to see what will happen, and then invent a common path forward. They have an itch to do something, and they share a belief that pooling their resources and collaborating might get them what they want. But they don't know what they'll do together.
Just seven years out of college, Sadhu Johnston had become Chicago's chief environmental officer in 2005, appointed by Mayor Richard Daley to lead the greening of the nation's third-largest city. Two years earlier he'd started working on that goal as an assistant to the mayor, and found himself struggling to find out what other cities were doing. "I was cold-calling people in other cities and Googling to get information. I didn't know anyone in a similar position. It was really a vacuum. For several years this was the primary frustration of my job. What information you did get was largely spin—the positive stuff without any of the challenges. You learn as much from the failures as from successes, and it was really hard to get that."
Daley had announced that Chicago would become the nation's greenest big city, but no one was sure what that meant and how to make it happen. "Even most environmental groups were not seeing cities as playing a role when it came to climate change and environmental benefits," Johnston recalls. "Cities were still viewed as 'the evil city,' with pollution coming out and resources going in to be consumed." Gradually, though, the idea of urban sustainability, of redesigning urban systems for improved environmental and economic performance, especially reduced production of carbon emissions that triggered climate change, started to catch on. When Daley met with other mayors, Johnston compared notes with their staffers and found they too were frustrated by the lack of useful information. "A number of us thought we needed to be coordinated. But I realized I couldn't do it myself; I had a full-time job." There followed a period of false starts: one organization was interested in helping but didn't follow up; another proposed to help, but wanted far too much money; a gathering of people from a few cities didn't lead to anything. "I was casting about, trying to figure out how to get this done."
In an entirely different context, that of the American Jewish community, Rachel Levin also had an itch to organize something different. In Los Angeles she had helped establish Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation and cofounded the Joshua Venture Group, a fellowship program for young social entrepreneurs. The daughter of a rabbi, she was looking for ways to engage young American Jews like herself with Jewish identity and community. Census data had found that a high percentage of Jews were marrying non-Jews, sparking national headlines that the Jewish community was marrying itself out of existence. Other research concluded that the Jewish community was irrelevant to many younger Jews. As a result, renewal and continuity had become a part of the Jewish American agenda. At the foundation, Levin recalls, "We were getting a lot of proposals from more established Jewish organizations, but they were based on how they had organized people in the past. It was not going to work with the majority of young Jews, who didn't want to be forced into a Jewish-only space." There had to be another way.
For Fred Keller, the itch was about securing the future of the $70-million-a-year manufacturing business he had started at the age of 29. He was worried about global competition. Cascade Engineering, Inc., had three plants in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area with about 600 employees and a line of products for the office furniture industry. "We were doing well," Keller recalls. "But I was concerned." He had visited Japan a few years earlier, and what he'd learned had blown his mind. "I was in awe of what their manufacturers were doing. We had a lot to learn from these very disciplined Japanese companies. They had figured out how to be incredibly efficient; they focused on quality, and, as a result, they reduced costs." American firms—his and others he knew—hadn't figured out any of this. "Maybe for the first time in the history of manufacturing in the U.S., the competitor was not across town; there was international competition," Keller says. "I had a sense that we're either going to get this right or we're going to lose to them." He turned to his local competitors, talking to fellow CEOs of privately owned manufacturing companies. "I wanted to have a dialogue with some other folks," he says. "I didn't know all of them very well, but we all had a sense that we had to get better fast." So how could they do that?
When Keller, Levin, and Johnston scratched their different itches, each decided to work with peers to build a network.
In 2008, Johnston met Julia Parzen, a Chicago-based consultant, who expressed interest in helping. "We had worked together in developing Chicago's Climate Action Plan, and she seemed like the kind of person who could actually pull together a cohesive effort between cities' sustainability staffers. It would be about the members, not about her and her organization. She was open to listening to others and helping them pull something together. We started to pull in others to make it happen." And what was it? "I didn't want an association, because I knew I didn't want to start a big organization," Johnston says. Someone suggested that they hold an annual conference, but Parzen proposed instead that they form a set of ongoing relationships. "We needed to build relationships among folks in the emerging field of urban sustainability," Johnston says. "A network was the right approach." They started with a core group of seven sustainability directors, each of whom invited five peers to join the new network and attend its first gathering in the fall of 2009. "We called it the Urban Sustainability Directors Network."
Rachel Levin also spent time wandering in the wilderness before turning to a network approach. She, Roger Bennett, then of the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, and several colleagues designed an experiment. "We believed that if you bring smart, creative people together, good things will happen." They asked some 30 next-generation Jewish Americans to participate in a weekend retreat in Utah to talk about Jewish identity. "We invited people and were surprised when they said they wanted to come." Most of the participants in the summit didn't know each other, but nearly all were "cultural creatives," people working in the arts and media. "We focused on people who had influence beyond themselves and would come up with ideas we would not come up with." Several rabbis and historians attended as Jewish resource people, but there was no lecturing, just "open space" discussions that took whatever course people wanted. "We thought this was likely a one-time gathering. We were hoping maybe some creative ideas would come out of it." As the retreat came to an end, its organizers weren't sure what to do; they hadn't planned the closing. "We just said, 'Thanks for coming,'" Levin recalls. "And people said, 'What happens next? Are we going to do this next year? Now what happens?' That was the beginning of realizing that this experiment hadn't failed. We had absolutely underestimated what it would mean to people to have this open experience discussing issues of Jewish identity, meaning, and community—that it would have power and meaning for them personally, not just creatively." The next year, 2003, many retreat participants reassembled for a second "summit" weekend. That's when the Reboot network came to life. "We fell into the notion of having an ongoing network as ideas started emerging and we saw people working together from so many creative sectors. We saw how impact was magnified and leveraged in ways we could not have imagined."
Fred Keller had an easier time engaging the five fellow CEOs he linked with; they were in the same community and agreed that collaboration might be useful. "We thought we could learn faster from each other than if we were to go into the textbooks." They formed the West Michigan Manufacturers Council to support the region's manufacturing economy. "It came together because of the energy of the network, not because I did anything special," Keller explains. But it wasn't easy to get going. Learning from each other, from competitors, was not a comfortable process for the group. "It was new," says Keller. "You didn't really know what sharing would lead to. Are you going to be sharing more than the other guy? Are you going to be revealing something you shouldn't? We had to overcome a bias about not sharing information with our competitors. We had to open ourselves up to potential ridicule when they visited our shop floor. What if our plant wasn't as good as the other guy's?"
After an initial burst of energy, a mash-up start-up network's progress can often be slow, because its founders do everything by instinct and trial-and-error; they're feeling their way in the dark. Sometimes the network runs out of energy and fades away or gets stuck doing easier, lower-level activities—meetings, not network building—that don't energize the members for long. Despite the challenges, the three networks we've described built momentum and produced results. Years later—five years for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, 12 for Reboot, and more than 20 for the West Michigan Manufacturers Council—they are still up and running.
USDN has members in about 120 U.S. and Canadian cities and counties. A network that no one's ever heard of—and can't find out much about on the Web—affects the lives of 53 million city dwellers. More than 400 staffers in local governments participate in many of USDN's activities. The network stages a high-spirited, well-attended three-day annual meeting, operates two funds that have granted about $3 million to members' projects, supports eight regional networks and more than 15 working groups, and has attracted financial support from a dozen foundations. USDN has also started working on climate change with the C40 Cities world network of megacities, including Berlin, Johannesburg, London, Mumbai, Shanghai, and Sydney. Sadhu Johnston, cochair of the USDN Planning Committee and now deputy city manager of Vancouver, British Columbia, has the connections he was looking for: "I can call 120 different cities in North America and get a return call that day. I have access to leaders in each of those cities. I can get on our website and ask a question and get multiple responses. We all have access to each other and to information. This is a game changer for how we do our work."
Reboot members started to act on ideas that had popped up during their annual summit conversations. During the first few years, as new people were invited into the network, innovative products for younger Jews (and others) emerged and attracted national attention: The National Day of Unplugging, inspired by the Jewish Sabbath, encourages and helps hyper-connected people of all backgrounds to embrace the ancient ritual of a day of rest. A 2007 best-selling book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, is being made into a movie. A 2009 CD, Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos, blends traditional Jewish and Latino music. And a 2010 international design competition, "Sukkah City," to reimagine the temporary structures—sukkahs—that Israelites lived in during their exodus from Egypt, received more than 600 entries from 70 countries, hosted more than 100,000 people at the display site in New York City, and gathered more than 17,000 votes for best design. A decade after its birth, Reboot has more than 400 members, mostly in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, as well as the United Kingdom. The network's unique capacity continues to generate innovative products, and members have developed new religious and cultural organizations that also serve non-Rebooters and have started to engage mainstream Jewish organizations, becoming lay leaders or board members, or planning a Reboot-inspired event for younger Jews. "The fact that Reboot still has creative output is incredible," Levin says. "It's totally beyond my expectations."
The members of the West Michigan Manufacturers Council learned to share their problems and expertise with each other. After a few meetings spent talking about various shop-floor problems, Keller says, the CEOs' anxieties about sharing "melted away. The enthusiasm around the table grew. It was more exciting than scary." The excitement proved to be contagious, and during the next six years the Manufacturers Council became a busy hive of activity. Membership grew to 19 local manufacturing firms, ranging in size from 125 to more than 2,000 employees, and the Council sponsored annual conferences on world-class manufacturing. Council members developed a common framework about world-class manufacturing practices. By the end of 1993, more than 150 companies in the region were involved in 18 different Council-driven group-learning processes. "The personal relationships between the members of the network are critical to its maintenance and success," reported a case study; thanks to peer-to-peer learning, the network "combines the introduction of new information with the application to real problems, and learning from each other." In 1995, the Council sponsored an estimated $1.4 million in activities, most of it from member contributions and fees. It settled into an 8,000-square-foot office, training, and demonstration facility. It stimulated development of an Advanced Manufacturing Academy to prepare entry-level employees with the skills needed for world-class manufacturing. Fast-forward nearly 20 years and the Council has some 30 manufacturing members, champions four strategic initiatives, and "remains committed to its founding vision to strengthen the West Michigan manufacturing economy through collaboration."
Fred Keller continues as a member of the network—and points to other impacts. As the network's confidence grew, he says, members developed a proposal to the U.S. Department of Labor that resulted in a $15-million grant to the area for workforce development activities. "After that, we launched 'Talent 2025,' which now has 75 CEOs working as an organized network to hold talent systems [education and personnel] accountable for real results for people and organizations in our 13-county area. I doubt any of this could have happened had we not learned what our network of manufacturers could do together." Meanwhile, Keller's company, still headquartered in Grand Rapids, grew to 1,100 employees located in 15 facilities in North America and Europe. Its annual sales have quadrupled since Keller helped kick off the inter-firm collaboration to learn how to compete successfully.
Other social-impact networks start less impulsively. They are managed carefully into existence, the result of analysis, planning, and negotiation. Usually founders initiate the process because they hope to achieve more impact by getting organizations to collaborate. But to engineer this sort of collective effort, they have to analyze the problem they want to solve and its causes, and determine who should be involved in solving it, what they should do together, and how they should do it.
The Garfield Foundation, led by executive director Jennie Curtis, invested in a year of thinking about the problems of boosting renewable energy use and halting climate change before starting a network was even considered. Garfield was a midsize philanthropy, with about $3 million in grant-making annually, and Curtis wanted to explore new approaches to achieving greater results. She recognized that philanthropies were often not getting the hoped-for impact from their grants to organizations. "There was excellent work being done on the ground, but it was typically fragmented and siloed," she says. "There was not a lot of collaboration among grantees, and there was not a lot of aligned grant-making among foundations."
Excerpted from Connecting to Change the World by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, John Cleveland. Copyright © 2014 Peter Plastrik. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter 1. The Generative Network Difference Chapter 2. Start Me Up: Designing a Network -Purpose -Membership -Value Propositions -Coordination, Facilitation, and Communication -Resources -Governance -Assessment -Operating Principles -Bonus TrackAdvice to Funders and Other Network Engineers Chapter 3. Connect the Dots: Weaving a Network's Core Chapter 4. Network Evolution Chapter 5. Enable and Adapt: Managing a Network's Development -Member Engagement -Network Infrastructure -Provisional Planning -Periphery Relationships Chapter 6. Know Your Condition: Taking a Network's Pulse Chapter 7. Back to Basics: Resetting a Network's Design Chapter 8. Three Rules to Build By Afterword Resources for Network Builders Appendices Acknowledgments Index
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