By Diana Scearce, Monitor Institute
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a Knight Foundation webinar about the Connected Citizens report, which explores how social networks - on and offline - affect the way people push for social change.
A number of interesting questions were raised about strategies for network connectivity and structure. The questions made me think about tensions inherent in network design: creating loose and tight groups, connecting with people who are like ourselves and across differences, designing for niche interests and scale. The discussion led me to think about the nature of network-centric impact. Most often, when the power of networks is channeled toward meaningful impact, the path to get there combines qualities of healthy networks (e.g., resilience, self-organization, reach) with old-school planning and organizing principles (e.g., mission, vision, strategy).
Networks are people connected by relationships. They’re naturally occurring and all around us, like air. Strategy, on the other hand, is about intentionally charting a direction. It requires analysis, pattern recognition and making choices. Network-centric impact bring together the two: the bottom up potential of self-organization and top down intentionality.
Here are few of the questions about network connectivity and structure from the webinar:
What do you consider when drawing the boundaries of networks? Assuming your goal is to scale impact, the primary consideration is keeping the boundaries porous – so people can easily enter and exit. It’s helpful for people to make a clear choice to enter and affiliate with a social change network. This could mean becoming a formal member of a bricks and mortar network, like Lawrence Community Works a community development corporation in Massachusetts that is approaching community organizing with a network lens. It could also mean signing on to PreventObseity.net—an online network that provides free services to activists working to promote healthier living, and in the process connect these leaders. In both cases, people can enter easily and come in and out of the network depending on their interests and needs. When you’re drawing network boundaries, plan for fluidity.
How can networks support networks to achieve both niche customization and scale? I’m reminded of the quote from Clay Shirky, “We have lived in this world where little things are done for love and big things for money. Now we have Wikipedia. Suddenly big things can be done for love." So, it’s possible to have niche customization and scale because people can find each other, connecting and coordinating using tools like Twitter hash tags and Facebook groups. To do this well, follow Beth Kanter’s first step in using social media, and listen to the surrounding conversation so you can find opportunities for scaling your niche and linking networks to networks.
Any suggestions on how to encourage networks across social strata and interest groups while protecting space for people to find others like themselves? Our natural tendency as humans is to connect with others like ourselves (it’s the phenomenon known as ‘homophily’ in network speak). The handy thing about homophily is that its easy to build relationships with people who similar to you and once you’ve established a community with common experiences they can be a wonderful source of support (my moms’ group comes to mind). Connecting with people who are like ourselves is important for our well-being, but it’s unlikely to promote social change. Solving complex community problems requires engaging a range of perspectives that reflect the diversity of the system that needs to be changed. So, how to design for both homogeneity and heterogeneity? This is where network weavers come in. Network weavers are people who deliberately weave connections and bring in new perspectives while protecting space for the network to do its work. The Boston-based Barr Foundation has been a pioneer is supporting networks and network weaving. One of their many network-centric initiatives has focused on improving the local after school sector. Rather than funding individual organizations, Barr has channeled its resources toward weaving connections among the afterschool community in Boston. A core part of this strategy has been supporting a ‘weaver’ who introduces people and organizations throughout the sector with one another, shares information, and creates opportunities for afterschool leaders to come together. Over the years, there’s been a notable decrease in fragmentation, more awareness about what’s going on across the after school sector, better coordination and even collaborations catalyzed. (For a deeper dive, check out Barr’s report ‘Building a Field of Dreams.’)
Network weavers combine the bottom up and top down qualities of network-centric impact. Their work is about enabling bottom up action, and there is a clear intent and strategy driving the patterns they weave. They’re planning for emergence.
Listen to the webinar recording. Also participating were Mayur Patel (VP Strategy and Assessment, Knight Foundation), Dana Jackson (ED of the Making Connections Louisville Network) and Conor White-Sullivan (Co-Founder of Localocracy), and about 75 attendees.
Crossposted from Working Wikily