Photo Credit: An example of what a Social Network Analysis map looks like. These are the mid-level and strong possibility for collaboration connections between FAC Net members and staff in three cluster groups.

Reflections on a Network Leadership Symposium


As a FAC Net staff co-lead, I thought I was pretty fired up about learning networks. Nope. Not compared to these folks.

“These folks” are 175 nonprofit organization leaders and foundation staff who are interested in solving some of humanity’s most serious problems through network entrepreneurship. I had the pleasure of spending two days with them last month at the Stanford Social Innovation Review Nonprofit Management Institute. It’s an annual event that I’d never heard of, but with its focus this year on network leadership, my supervisor suggested I sign up.

The Power of Networks

I’ve worked with ten or so deliberately designed networks since 2001, but I haven’t always fully appreciated their power or truly understood why they work. David Sawyer summed up the importance of networks nicely:

“We live in a world of problems that are so complex — so tangled up with other problems, so non-linear, ambiguous, and volatile — that they defy solutions and cannot be effectively addressed by any one organization or even by any one sector…. We believe that lasting change and the resolution of these systemic issues is going to require effective collaboration across silos, across organizations, and across sectors, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants and the shared interests of the collective.”

Wildfire in the United States is one of those complex problems David was talking about. (Coincidentally, as David addressed the group, the most expensive fire in U.S. history, the Soberanes fire, was burning in the Big Sur region about 100 miles south of us.)

But it’s broader than fire. It was a nice change to spend time with folks who aren’t thinking about fire and conservation 24/7, and to learn more about equally important and urgent issues affecting many, many people. A large percentage of attendees were from the health care and education sectors. The case studies we heard about were from all over the world, and they demonstrated that social impact networks can generate remarkable outcomes across a wide range of issues.

Ernesto Sirolli speaks at the workshop. Courtesy of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Ernesto Sirolli was a speaker at the workshop. Courtesy of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

What I Took Away

Some of my key takeaways are below, but I also encourage you to check out the talks on the SSIR Institute website to find inspiring stories and helpful resources and contacts.

No egos: Nonprofit leaders seeking to be network entrepreneurs need to set aside their egos, and organizations should focus more on their mission than their brand. Behaving in a “network way” requires organizations to realize it’s not a zero sum game: credit can be shared, and the mission is best served by “being a node instead of a hub,” as Jane Wei-Skillern said. (For a slightly different take on this, see this article by Adene Sacks and Heather McLeod Grant.)

Bottom-up: Another theme was the effectiveness of bottom-up approaches for solving local problems. Several speakers relayed stories about successes that were built on finding passionate people in the places where they wanted to effect change, and investing in them to help create stronger communities.

Relationships: David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer (of Converge for Impact) provided us with some tools for making complex collaborations work. They stressed that members of effective collaboratives don’t need to like one another, but they do need to trust one another. Sawyer and Ehlrichman further explained, “the overlap between a member’s individual priorities and the collective’s shared priorities is what we refer to as the intersection of self-interest and shared-interest, and it is critical to the success of a collaboration.” Throughout their presentation they used the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network as a case study.

Keep learning: FAC Net was designed using principles from Connecting to Change the World, a book that was cited many times during the meeting. Despite the great insights in that book and others, there’s still a lot to learn about how to best nurture networks. Nevertheless, I came away from the symposium more convinced than ever that FAC Net and the collaborative groups we work with are on a path to make a real difference.

Thanks to Liz Rank for reviewing an initial draft of this post and making significant improvements.

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