If you’re like most nonprofit leaders, you’re devoting significant effort to your networks. But what return are you seeing on that investment?
I recently spoke with 500+ nonprofit leaders at Nonprofit Driven 2018 and emphasized 3 simple truths about strong, impactful networks.
1. Network leadership is different from organizational leadership.
Organizations tend to have strong, stable structures and centralized decision-making. Leaders prioritize goal achievement, alignment and retention.
Networks are loose, unstructured webs of relationships. People are engaged in autonomous yet connected activities to achieve a shared purpose. Activities are emergent and often undefined; people come together when there is energy and opportunity. Network leaders have to be humble co-leaders that lift their gaze above individual organizations to see a greater purpose.
2. Networks are grounded in trusting relationships.
The success or failure of networks can usually be traced to the condition of their relationships. Like any relationship, trust is key. Easy to say, but how do you do it?
I. Visualizing your network can offer powerful insights.
Network mapping can be a powerful trust building process, especially when you engage network members in making sense of it together. Seeing the system of relationships can illuminate barriers and opportunities to build equity and trust.
(Photo shared with permission of East Scarborough Storefront)
In some networks, one person (the hub) knows many individuals who aren’t connected to each other (spokes). This can limit and potentially block the flow of information and resources.
Hub & Spoke
II. Closing triangles.
Hubs need to “close the triangles” – build relationships between disconnected people. Closing triangles is a key strategy for weaving ecosystems of trust in which:
• People are meaningfully engaged
• There aren’t gatekeepers
• Diverse perspectives can be fully integrated, and
• Leadership is shared.
III. Set the table for inclusion.
How you set up a room, design an agenda and facilitate a dialogue can either limit or build engagement and inclusion. I recommend Liberating Structures, a set of creative yet systematic facilitation tools that leverage everyone’s contributions.
3. Networks enable community building and social impact.
To make a social impact, networks also need to take collective action. Here are four essential practices:
I. Foster shared purpose.
Shared purpose sustains momentum. Prioritize the purpose and align your strategy to realize it.
II. Foster co-creation.
Mechanisms like Liberating Structures and purpose-driven working groups enable co-creation and build shared ownership.
III. Foster collaborative leadership.
Shared power is key in networks. Regularly analyze how the network is functioning, close the triangles and guide the work together.
IV. Foster generative learning.
Make space to reflect and gather the collective wisdom. Nurture a culture of curiosity and develop agility through learning.
Have you unleashed the power of your networks? Integrating these 3 simple truths and a few proven practices can help make your networks effective and impactful.
Lisa Watson is the Co-Founder & CEO of Openly, a strategy, research and design firm enabling changemakers to achieve social impact. She is also a faculty member at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.