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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Network-centric Organizations: The Key to Social Change

The contemporary nonprofit sector exists within a shifting landscape of complex social problems, innovative technologies, and the growth of grassroots efforts. In order to be successful in effectively addressing social ills, nonprofit organizations must learn to utilize a network strategy of collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders to create true social impact. While there are many benefits related to a network-centric framework, including access to new and diverse perspectives, networked resources, and mobilized, coordinated action, there are also barriers to effective networking that can arise, such as collective preconditions, substantive uncertainty, and competition within the network. By utilizing four key strategies of involving diverse stakeholders, creating a backbone infrastructure, developing shared terminology and measurement indicators, and promoting collective action, organizations can find success in effective networking and produce meaningful social change.

  1. Involving diverse stakeholders – Stakeholders must have a vision and goals that are aligned with that of the network, and efforts must be taken to involve diverse cross-sector groups, including those from private and corporate foundations, community advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, businesses, government entities and other related nonprofit organizations of various sizes, etc. These stakeholders should exist across all levels, from the CEO to the equally important community member, with lived experience of the issue at hand. Nonprofits may choose to involve the public through technological venues such as e-mail, text messaging, and social networking platforms. They can also tap into existing social networks for greater involvement and create opportunities for interested parties to come together and discuss important issues. Mindful and creative development of this network of invested individuals and groups will create an environment of trust and mutual support that will lead to greater collective impact.
  2. Creating a backbone infrastructure – This provides a movement with a dedicated staff that focuses entirely on the collective initiative and functions as the project manager, data manager, and facilitator for the network. This backbone organization is also the key to secured funding and allows stakeholders to focus on reaching their shared goals through pooled resources, rather than the isolated impact created by increased competition for funding. Depending on the size and establishment of the organization, the nonprofit who desires to create a collective initiative may be able to provide this backbone infrastructure for the movement, or they may need to designate another organization for this role. Existing social impact organizations that emphasize collective impact around contemporary issues, such as the United Way or other large funding organizations (e.g. private or public foundations), can provide great choices to fill the role of backbone organization in a collaborative movement. Nonprofits should evaluate the goals, resources, and reputation of a potential backbone organization for compatibility within the issue network. The backbone infrastructure may have roots in the nonprofit, business, or public sectors, and leaders should understand that this aspect of a collaborative network will vary for each organization and/or social movement.
  3. Developing shared terminology and measurement indicators – Discussions must take place in the creation of a collective initiative to clearly define the issue at hand and any associated terminology. All parties must also agree to a shared set of measurement indicators and data collection methods, as this is necessary to show any impact achieved across the collective. This may involve the use of workshops on existing trends for education and debate within the network, as well as the discussion of innovative strategies for potential use. The development of a shared vocabulary and measurement system will allow all stakeholders to be on the same page when discussions take place and will work to eliminate confusion throughout the network. It will also allow evaluators to provide cohesive and organized results when showing achieved impact to stakeholders and the public at large.
  4. Promoting collective action – This involves the establishment of clear steps that participants can take to create impact and the development of feedback mechanisms that allow for the discussion of successes and failures within the collective. Promotion of collective action through these processes allows stakeholders to take leadership of their role in the movement while providing a learning opportunity for the network as a whole. This is accomplished by fostering an environment of transparency and openness within each organization. All involved parties should have an awareness of actions being taken within the network, and discussion around these actions should be actively encouraged. Depending upon the size and establishment of the network, promotion of collective action may be as simple as regular email updates or conference calls, or may require more involved solutions such as conferences and site visits.

Participants within networks that value collective action will be secure and accountable in their roles, and this will foster an environment of trust and greater social impact within the issue area.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog