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A Funder’s Guide to Networks

Posted by Steve Waddell in Blog, Funding, Net Dev on April 21, 2011

My mind cried out “YES!” repeatedly as I read a succinct report titled Connected Citizens;  The Power, Peril And Potential Of Networks.  It is a wonderful summary of some networking basics.  And best of all, its target audience is funders and it was paid for by the Knight Foundation – and presented this month to a meeting of the Network of Network Funders! 

The report’s starting point is (1) individual citizens and (2) communications technology.  So it doesn’t directly 11-04-20 Connected Citizens-2touch inter-organizational networks, and it asks questions specifically about implications of communications technologies.  Moreover, it focuses largely on American community-level examples.  But its well-formulated lessons provide some good guidance for global multi-stakeholder inter-organizational networks, too. 

Early on, author Diana Scearce compares the 1960s organizing of the farm workers union in the U.S., with the development of Linux as an open-source operating system.  Despite their technological contrasts, Diana gets at the essence of networking by pointing out that both are about “…aligning and coordinating their individual efforts to make a collective impact. Both models offer valuable lessons for community change today.”

The heart of the report describes five “…network-centric practices:

  1. Listening to and consulting the crowds: Actively listening to online conversations and openly asking for advice. 
  2. Designing for serendipity: Creating environments, in person and online, where helpful connections can form.
  3. Bridging differences: Deliberately connecting people with different perspectives.
  4. Catalyzing mutual support: Helping people directly help each other.
  5. Providing handrails for collective action: Giving enough direction for individuals to take effective and coordinated action.”

For me, the description of serendipity was particularly insightful.  “…ser­endipity means creating spaces that focus more on people and less on specific results.”  Diana points out that a magical contribution of well-functioning networks is emergence of the unpredictable.  For me, this should be a “both-and”:  the traditional linear connections and coordination,and the innovations that come from “stewarding” (yes, she uses that word as well) the space:  creating and holding “…spaces where members can fulfill their own and the community’s needs.”  People share a sense of community and purpose, but being narrowly driven by discipline around work plans is something much more associated with organizations, than networks (although networks “secretariats” are, of course, organizations in this case).  To get the real added value of networks requires serendipity. 

One of the five “network-centric practices” that didn’t seem to ring true for me with Diana’s individual citizen and communications technology-driven examples was “bridging differences”.  The examples seemed to me relatively weak.  One is CouchSurfing, an on-line “network connecting travelers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation and/or advice.”   The other is Localocracy:  an “online town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues.”

It seems to me that bridging significant differences over time relies on much more sophisticated facilitation, capacity-development and intense face-to-face interaction than individual citizen-led virtual networks can provide…and certainly more than communication technologies can support.  Also, to realize transformational change at significant scale really requires some sort of formal role for organizational participation.  

Diana goes beyond the usual network euphoria, to give three scenarios for our future: 

Digging Foxholes

Know Your Neighbor

MobileME

Diana ends with some specific recommendations for funders that all funders interested in realizing change would do well to read. 

With over-reliance on networks as virtual communications, I think that the “Digging Foxholes” seems pretty likely.  There needs to be strong support for the role of face-to-face in network development, as well.   Your thoughts?

Some Thoughts from Diana

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Steve!

In the report, we were working to tease out how the forces of increased interconnectedness, decentralization and transparency are playing out today, what might happen in the coming years, and what this means for investing in citizen engagement. New communications technologies are, of course, an important part of the equation – but not the whole the picture. Our interest is how are – and will –people be connecting to create the change they care about in their communities.

While I agree that face-to-face time is critical to building trusted relationships, I don’t think it’s an either /or. People will be connecting fluidly through multiple venues and vehicles, different people will have different preferences for how they connect, and in most cases, there will be a range of online and offline. For example, Localocracy sets up digital forums for each town in which they’re operating. They go into communities where there are local leaders, like a city official or a news organization, who are willing to partner and actively engage residents with diverse perspectives in the conversation. Their intent is to create an additional space for engaging in public deliberation that is integrated with the live local community and in-person dialogue.

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