When people are asked to identify nonprofits, certain names jump to the foreground—the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Clubs, Habitat for Humanity. What these household names have in common, besides size and fame, is that they all work through a network structure, with multiple affiliates across the country striving for significant impact. In fact, nine of the ten largest US nonprofits are networks.

For decades, the main pressure facing networks was to be in more places and serve more people. Now, there is a different kind of pressure: to get better. Networks with multiple sites are increasingly expected to provide donors and supporters with a higher level of evidence that their work is effective and delivered consistently across the board. While an “outcomes” orientation isn’t new, its effect on the sector has been magnified, in part because of the difficult economy.

In our work, we have seen several networks take promising steps to deliver measurably better results in achieving their missions. Central offices are working collaboratively with affiliates to improve the way in which their network’s high-level strategy translates into action across the entire organization. They’re figuring out where their best work is being done, finding ways to become more effective, and learning how to ensure that all affiliates benefit from the experiences and know-how of their peers.

Here are five promising elements that networks are using to raise the bar:

Use the network’s unified strategy to drive decision-making. Although network members operate in distinct communities—serving populations or causes that may vary by geography—consensus around a common strategy keeps each site moving in the same direction. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for example, identifies key performance indicators (such as academic success measures and frequency of visits) that apply to all clubs, regardless of size, programming, and population characteristics. These measures help the organization assess individual clubs, identify the things that individual affiliates need to do to improve their results, and show where one club might benefit from the experiences of another.

Create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness. When affiliates share an understanding of what high performance looks like, it becomes easier to identify reliable indicators of effectiveness. Networks should ask themselves: What information will allow us to set clear expectations and compare results? What will help us see how all affiliates are performing against their common strategic goal and understand why some affiliates may be achieving more than others? What support is needed to transform the effectiveness of the individual organizations and the network itself?

Create paths for affiliates to improve. No basketball coach would ever tell a player to “just play more like Michael Jordan.” Professional athletes hone their skills by progressing through a series of developmental milestones. The same is true with network affiliates trying to become more effective. Once the networks we studied have developed a clear sense of the dimensions that indicate high performance, they have then shifted their focus to defining clear, intermediate developmental stages on the way to reaching those goals.

Diagnose where the network is today and uncover pockets of strength. Having figured out the developmental stages that characterize an affiliate’s progress, these networks have moved to diagnose their current state, giving themselves a baseline against which to measure progress. They ask: Where do affiliates fall on the developmental continuum? Are there pockets of strength, or weakness? How might the entire network strengthen performance if affiliates could improve in one key area?

Consider the experience of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program (ChalleNGe), which offers a quasi-military environment for teens who have dropped out of secondary school, with the aim of helping them become productive citizens. In 2010, ChalleNGe identified key dimensions of program effectiveness and assessed affiliate performance against those dimensions. If all affiliates could match the performance of the top quartile, then 2,700 more young people would graduate from the residential program each year—a 35 percent increase in impact—without needing to add new locations.

Capture knowledge that matters: After completing the tough task of assessment, networks face the challenge of leveraging affiliate knowledge to improve results across the board. This means figuring out what to do first and how affiliates can best learn from their colleagues throughout the network. Especially important may be the use of a self-evaluation tool by which affiliates can track performance indicators, understand their strengths and weakness relative to other network members, and tailor performance improvement strategies to those strengths and weaknesses.

We have seen a growing number of networks embark on a journey to drive impact in their work. A new article, “Growing Network Impact: How Nonprofit Networks are Raising the Bar on Results” shows how the work of six networks illustrates these practices. Please share your thoughts, ideas, and stories.

imageAlan Tuck, a partner in the Boston office of the Bridgespan Group, leads Bridgespan’s work with networks and is the former head of the Boston and New York offices. In addition to his work at Bridgespan, he serves on the Executive committee of the Board of Directors of the YMCA of Greater Boston.



imageMandy Taft-Pearman is a partner in Bridgespan’s Boston office and lead the work with environmental networks. Prior to joining Bridgespan, Mandy worked for the National Safe Kids Campaign, a national network focused on children’s public health.