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A Bifocal Lens: The Value of Investing in Both Networks and Organizations

November 28, 2011

(Paul Connolly is chief client services officer at the TCC Group, a consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporate community involvement programs. A version of this post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog.)

BifocalsWhat do the Arab Spring uprisings, the Tea Party, al-Qaeda, and Occupy Wall Street have in common? They all stem from flexible networks of people and groups rather than just a single organization. And they all have powerfully influenced society lately. As technology has enabled more connection and coordination, networks are playing a greater role in tackling social and environmental problems, galvanizing change, and enhancing civil society. At the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference "Growing Social Impact in a Networked World" a few weeks ago, funders discussed how they are changing their perspectives and practices to support and participate in networks.

One foundation leader remarked that observing a network is like looking at a Monet painting: up close, the brushstrokes can be blurry and seem disconnected, but when you stand back the power of the full picture becomes clear. Another speaker advised that funders need to view networks with a different type of lens than what they use for organizations. Networks tend to have more distributed ownership and expertise, less linear decision-making processes, more fluid boundaries, and results that are harder to measure. Funders therefore need to tailor how they assist networks -- for example, by investing at multiple levels, providing for additional improvisation, relinquishing some control, and focusing less on causal attribution of outcomes.

Along these lines, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has provided funding to foster a network of activists across the nation working to reduce childhood obesity by improving eating habits and increasing physical activity. In doing so, the foundation has learned that shifting from a mostly one-way broadcast mode to a more robust and interactive dialogue with constituents who are connected to the coalition has required more effort, openness, and trust. At the same time, foundation staff members have strived to listen actively to network participants and create authentic feedback loops -- both online and in-person -- to help advance the effort.

Similarly, the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation has nurtured Reboot, a network of thought leaders and culturally influential Jewish people working to engage a younger generation in "rebooting" Jewish culture, rituals, and traditions. The foundation's strategy was to get the right mix of people in the right space and then allow for serendipity. With a bold overarching goal, the foundation backs the network's process and does not try to micromanage the specific means chosen by members or the content they produce.

The Packard Foundation studied their existing portfolio of grantees and realized they already had a broad spectrum of models, about a third being networks for wide-ranging causes with varying types of needs. As Packard program director Stephanie McAuliffe noted, "Our grantee the Ocean Conservancy did not want to strengthen their organization's brand, but the ocean's brand." The foundation has improved its own network approach through an online wiki, transparently sharing data about certain programs and engaging others in their strategy development and evaluation work. [Ed note: You can learn more about the Packard wiki at the Transparency Talk blog.]

Although networks have many distinctive features, they also share many of the same characteristics as organizations. In fact, many networks are actually collections of organizations, or at least are comprised of individuals who see their participation through a specific organizational perspective. So networks can be both capable in their own right, as well as reflect the performance of the particular organizations involved. TCC Group's research on nonprofits and coalitions have found that the highest-performing ones share such central characteristics as distributed leadership, inclusive mindsets and practices, cross-fertilized programs, learning cultures, and adaptability.

Specifically, we found that the strongest nonprofit organizations:

  • have a clear vision;
  • understand community needs and services well;
  • are deeply engaged and forge alliances with external stakeholders;
  • encourage reflective inquiry; and
  • amplify their impact by not only expanding their own programs, but also disseminating replicable practices and models and by influencing policies and systems.

Our study of coalitions for the California Endowment determined that the most successful ones:

  • have a lucid mutual purpose and value proposition;
  • collaborate and manage conflict well;
  • conduct ongoing assessment;
  • have transparent decision-making processes; and
  • are action-oriented.

Far-sighted grantmakers see that scaling social impact will not happen just by growing high-performing nonprofit organizations one at a time. Increasingly, strong networks will be needed, and their respective efforts will have to intersect more and more. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations are still the predominant vehicle for achieving philanthropic support, and many networks involve sets of them. To see organizations and networks -- the individual brushstrokes as well as the full painting -- clearly rather than through two different sets of optics, funders need better bifocal lenses. Without them, they'll be hampered by fuzzy vision and blind spots, reducing their potential to magnify positive change.

There's much yet to discover about harnessing the combined potential of organizations and networks. What tools, frameworks, and training are needed to sharpen our collective bifocal vision? How can we learn more about organizational and network effectiveness and the places where they intersect -- and do a better job of applying what we already know? How can grantmakers support networks' efforts to build superior shared learning systems and performance measurement within particular fields? Share you thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.

-- Paul Connolly

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Posted by Bix Gabriel  |   November 30, 2011 at 01:03 PM

Dear Paul,

Thank you for this excellent post - we love the Monet painting analogy! As an international network operating in 47 countries, with a membership that spans very diverse organizations (from large, established sites like Ellis Island, to emerging grassroots initiatives), we witness daily the power of networks in creating global collaboration - and change.
But, as you point out, measuring the impact is a challenge.
And so, we're happy to hear about funders that recognize the unique value and challenges of networks!
In 2012, we will be beginning n evaluation of the work of Sites of Conscience through a network lens, and look forward to sharing the results down the line.

Thanks again for writing!

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

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