Over the past 12 years I’ve worked with social innovators around the world. From the jungle floors of India to New York City high rises, I’ve observed that the most successful social innovators instinctively weave and construct networks. It is their organizational strategy. They aren’t inventing products or selling services; they are building movements that change the social norms of the world around them. They are movement makers.
At Context Partners we believe that networks are the heart of a successful strategy. And when we stop to look around, this approach isn’t unique to social innovators; it is also driving modern-day disruptors like Uber and Kickstarter. In a complex and increasingly connected world, movements and networks are cornerstones of the organizational strategy of the future. They are the best way to bring about massive, scalable, and sustained social impact.
Let’s consider DonorsChoose.org, founded in 2000 by the former Bronx public high school teacher Charles Best. At the time, Best recognized a critical need to overcome insufficient educational funding and figured out a simple solution: Bypass ineffectual education budgeting debates and put passionate citizens directly in touch with the schoolrooms that have the most need. The resulting online platform has activated some 1.2 million donors, who have given almost $280 million dollars for more than 500,000 school projects. DonorsChoose has helped fund projects for some 12 million students at 60,000 schools across the country.
Like most social entrepreneurs, Best is a network builder by nature. He had the inherent smarts to organize and mobilize a movement around a shared goal—the critical social issue of reducing educational inequality. He also transcended the “hero” trap and centered his organization on its members instead of himself.
Unfortunately, most nonprofit institutions don’t operate this way. They foster a more rigid, traditional, and transactional model, with decision-makers at the top and monetary rewards for a select few. Movement models, by contrast, empower a wide range of stakeholders and employ reputation and experience rewards to foster long-term engagement.
It is time for us to put networks of relationships at the core of organizational strategy, instead of transactions and grants.
A Network for Resilience
The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative (100RC)—which takes a networked approach to building global resilience, with a focus on cities—is a good example of this. The foundation understood that half of the global population lives in cities, and that to prepare for the human, environmental, and economic risks posed by urbanization, cities need to increase their resilience—what Rockefeller defines as “the capacity of individuals, communities, organizations, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of shocks and stresses.”
But how do you encourage cities of different sizes, cultures, political systems, and social structures to build resilience?
Traditional foundation models of one-to-one grants, monetary fixes, and incremental progress seemed inadequate. Resilience is a global challenge that requires a systemic, one-to-many solution. So Rockefeller created 100RC to galvanize a network of cities—not just a few, working separately to build resilience, but thousands—into taking action, learning from each other, and participating in shared experiences.
And it started with people. Context Partners designed and ran an online prize challenge to generate this network of stakeholders and leaders. Prizes are uniquely suited to developing expertise or solution networks, because they narrow focus to a single issue or problem, but widely expand awareness. The challenge functioned smoothly within the Rockefeller Foundation's traditional architecture; while it focused on a single, proven approach just as a grant would, it also sourced a community of experts to seed the resilience movement.
To build this network of relationships, we got creative with the grant model; the foundation offered a prize of support for a new position within city governments: the chief resilience officer (CRO). The CRO holds the vision for resilience in his or her city, and facilitates the relationships and solutions “across departments and with the local community to maximize innovation and minimize the impact of unforeseen events.” CROs are not embedded, individual heroes; instead they are facilitators of the resilience network, both within their city’s many communities—business, academic, philanthropic, and government—and among their global CRO peers.
The 100RC network currently includes large metropolitan areas such as New York and Bangkok, and smaller cities such as Berkeley, California, and Ashkelon, Israel. The cities receive funding and logistical guidance for the CRO role; support for developing a resilience strategy; and access to solutions, service providers, and public and private sector partners. The initial winning cities share strategies, milestones, and challenges on a central platform. The 100RC also provides a suite of resilience-building tools and services, including ways to assess risk and exposure to hazards, and guidelines for designing resilient urban infrastructure.
The Evolution of Networked Impact
As this resilience initiative developed, an interesting but not altogether surprising organizational evolution took place. With its own structure, dedicated staff, and platform, 100RC was becoming an organization that could operate separately from the foundation. By evolving 100RC into a stand-alone organization but with continued support, the foundation honored its mission to actively promote the well-being of humanity around the world, while also empowering leadership far beyond its walls.
The Rockefeller Foundation isn’t the only example of a philanthropy that has used a challenge to create a more networked impact. The Knight Foundation, for example, sponsored the BMe storytelling challenge, which invited black males to share stories about how they and their peers contribute to their community. The challenge wasn’t about a product or a discrete solution; it was about people, and it fostered relationships that enabled the communities to build on what was working locally, not be limited to fixing problems or perceptions of the mens’ value in their communities.
Based on examples like these, the opportunity for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector is clear. Our increasingly networked world demands that organizations use networked models to change the way we interact in society and how we work together to overcome challenging social problems. The tenacity of social entrepreneurs and their instincts to create movements provide a pathway to realizing these goals. The greatest impact will come when organizations claim their roles as movement makers.