Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact

Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland

256 pages, Island Press, 2014

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Successful networks are designed—they don’t just happen. Knowing a network’s essential design issues—and how to make and when to change design choices—is a crucial part of the practice of building effective social-impact networks. This book explores common network design issues in depth and offers practical advice on how to handle them from start up to evaluation.

In our work with network builders we’ve identified eight design issues that should be addressed during start-up or readdressed during any time of significant transition or trouble in a network’s life:

  1. Purpose: what is the network’s reason for being?

  2. Membership: who is eligible to become a member, what are the membership requirements, and how many members will there be?

  3. Value Propositions: what will be the benefits of membership— for individuals and collectively?

  4. Coordination, Facilitation, and Communication: how will network members link and work with each other? 

  5. Resources: what is the network’s funding model?

  6. Governance: who decides what the network will do, and how do 
they decide?

  7. Assessment: how will the network monitor its condition and 

  8. Operating Principles: what rules will guide the network’s culture?

The following material is excerpted from chapter 2, “Start Me Up: Designing a Network,” and includes opening sections for six of the eight design issues.

Membership: Who’s In, Who’s Not

Whatever their purpose, generative social-impact networks have boundaries and here, too, there are design choices. The borders may be soft or hard, easy or difficult to penetrate. In an open network most anyone can become a member—the more the merrier. In a closed network the membership is more tightly controlled and limited. Generative social-impact networks lean toward having a closed membership, often handpicked by other members, and keep themselves relatively small so members can develop strong generative relationships with each other. Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) has many times more members than most of the generative social-impact networks we know. Five years after birth, it had about 700 members, and the count reached 3,000 active members by 2014. Nonetheless, it’s a closed network—only Lawrence residents can become members.

When it comes to designing a membership model, network builders have to address four basic questions:

  • Eligibility: who is eligible to become a member and what criteria must a potential member meet? 

  • Size: how many members should there be?

  • Categories: should all members have the same benefits and 
responsibilities, or should there be different categories of 

  • Requirements: what requirements for participation should 
there be for members? 

Value Propositions: Benefits of Membership

Knowing a network’s purpose and membership sets the stage for spelling out its value propositions, the specific benefits that network members will realize by participating in the network. Doing this well is crucial. “If there’s no value, people will start to exit,” says LCW’s Bill Traynor, an astute network builder. “It’s a self-regulating system.”

Most people join a network with the idea that participating will get them something that helps them or their organization do their work. They may not have thought much about working with other members on a common goal. They have an individual value proposition, but not a collective value proposition that they share with others and that requires the collaboration of a network. But, as Heather Creech points out, “If the network serves only as an umbrella for a collection of individual projects, it is not realizing its added-value potential.” It’s up to network builders to cultivate the collective value that will bring members together in common cause and allow them to give to, as well as get from, each other.

Network members may care about different value propositions, and many members may have multiple value propositions.

Coordination, Facilitation, and Communication: Linking Members

Almost nothing will slow down a network’s value creation and development more than the failure to coordinate and facilitate the members’ work, which includes helping them communicate with each other. When fledgling network builders tell us they haven’t been able to schedule face-to-face meetings or conference calls among members, or figure out what members want to do together, or how to keep members in touch with each other, or follow up on something network members decided—take your pick—these are the sorts of problems that can cripple a network. We’ve seen three coordination roles in network building: logistics, operations, and strategic management.

  • Logistics involves setting up meetings, conference calls, and other ways members can engage with each other; tracking and documenting network activities, decisions, revenues, and expenditures; creating and distributing essential information such as a directory of members and contact information.
  • Operations typically involves other duties, such as running a website and other external communications; facilitating group processes of members; documenting network decisions and activities and managing an archive of network documents; administering the network’s finances; helping members to draft proposals for funding; and orienting or onboarding new members of the network.
  • Strategic management is a higher level of responsibility focused on helping network members, especially those with governance duties, make and implement decisions about the network’s development. This could include managing relationships with outside partners and funders, supporting members who are undertaking initiatives for the network, and creating and modifying network plans.

Governance: Making Decisions

As a network takes shape, it’s natural to think about how it will be governed, especially since the usual top-down command model of organizations is not an option in a decentralized world.

We usually urge network designers to keep network governance informal for as long as possible. In a network’s early days the founders are its government, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most other network members aren’t ready to take responsibility; they’re still wondering if the network will be worth participating in; they want to get something out of the network, not invest time in building it. So they’re inclined to let the organizers be the deciders. There’s another reason to hold off on formalizing governance: the purpose of network governance is not to tell members what to do, but to enable them to do what they want to do— and it usually takes some time before members know what they want to do together. An early-stage network just doesn’t need a lot of enabling governance and should take its time to figure out what governance it will need.

Sooner or later, though, authority should shift from a network’s founders to its members, which will expand the number of deciders and, inevitably, make network decision making more complicated. There’s no one best model for network governance; so much depends on the particulars of the network’s purpose, membership, size, and other design elements.

Assessment: Monitoring Network Health

As your network starts making decisions and taking action, how will you know how well the network building is going? Far too many network organizers don’t ask this question until long after the network has matured, so in the early stages, as the network gets going, they don’t really know how it’s doing. They may have anecdotal evidence—a member says she likes the network; several members collaborate on a project—but the organizers have no substantial information, no baseline data, about the network. Yet it’s quite easy to establish some initial measurement of the network’s health—and this can set up in-depth assessments later on that will influence the network’s strategic direction.

Operating Principles: Guiding the Culture

Starting a network doesn’t end with designing its purpose, membership, value propositions, resources, coordination, and governance. You also have to guide development of the network’s culture, the way members will conduct the network’s business and express their expectations. Because a network doesn’t work like an organization, it’s not always immediately obvious what the guidelines should be. From our experiences with building networks, we’ve developed several operating principles to help network organizers get things going and avoid defaulting to the “organization-centric” habits so deeply fixed in all of us.

Make the network do the work. The steering group of an economic development network in western rural Maine wanted to get several projects going as soon as possible. Some members thought the best way to do this would be to hire a staff person to do the work. Others, including Bruce Hazard, who had started the network, argued that that was the way an organization would do things. The network way, they said, would be to get the network members—not a staff person—to do the work together, using their connections, knowledge, competencies, and resources. The point of a network is for the members of the network to collaborate to produce value for each other.

Do everything with someone, not alone. Network consultant June Holley gets this just right: “Make your motto, ‘No one works alone.’” When a member wants to pursue an idea, help him connect to others who might want to join the effort. Establish working groups of members to explore possibilities for collective action.

Let connections flow to value. The developers of Lawrence Community Works used a variety of programs to attract people to the network. In 2005, it had about a dozen of these working clusters. But network developers noticed that one of them—a program for youth interested in architecture—was not attracting many network members. What should they do about that? Some network organizers argue that a network should keep supporting weaker activities, while others say they should be allowed to die. We hold the latter view. Network members link to working groups or clusters because they perceive they might derive value. It’s inevitable that some activities and groups will have more participants than others and that some will attract only a few members. This uneven distribution poses challenges for network developers. “Popular” clusters attract more resources and can come to dominate a network, while “unpopular” ones struggle along at the margin. Should a network builder try to override these signals—continuing to invest, for instance, in the capacity of a working group with few members? If so, how will this change the nature of the network and affect its development? We said earlier, in the discussion of collective value propositions, what members value is what should drive networks.

Keep network information and decision making open and transparent. No secrets, no information hoarding: this principle honors the decentralization model in which no member is more powerful than any other. And it’s essential for building trust among members and stimulating collaboration.

Keep plans flexible. Most of the networks we know make plans that are inherently short term and temporary, a year or two at the most. “All our programs and committees have to be seen as provisional—useful only in that they get us where we need to go,” state Bill Traynor and Jessica Andors of Lawrence Community Works. At the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, members identify their priorities for the network every year at their annual meeting; existing processes continue only if they have enough support, and proposed new efforts don’t start if they don’t attract sufficient member support. Networks are unlikely to create the sort of three-to five-year strategic plans that organizations do. Because they don’t start with the sense of permanence that organizations do, expecting instead to adapt their plans as they go along, their planning horizons are relatively short.

Reprinted from Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland with permission from Island Press, Washington, D.C. Copyright © 2014 Peter Plastrik and published by Island Press. ( All rights reserved.