How To Create Social Impact Through Thoughtful Networks

Many nonprofits have been surprised that genuine collaboration rarely endures when the community or network is left to its own devices. Members lose interest, content becomes stale, someone goes on a rant. In the end, everyone wonders why they started in the first place.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

This is the first in the "Designing Networks For Social Impact" blog series on networks and communities. In the second installment, you can find out how the Women's World Banking Leadership Community successfully applied these strategies. In the last installment, we show you how we expanded early engagement on our online learning platform by focusing on two vital dimensions: convening structures and facilitation.

For the first century after Darwin published the Origin of the Species in 1859, sociologists and biologists claimed that we act as self-serving individuals. They pointed to Darwin's "survival of the fittest" and prevalence of competition in our markets and hierarchies. Yet in the 1970s researchers such as Steven Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and others exposed new dynamics of human culture. They showed that we humans are driven to participate, as much, if not more, than compete, and that such culture can even influence evolution. That conclusion has been recently demonstrated in health studies: For example, London University College researcher, Andrew Steptoe, published a decade-long study in 2012 showing that subjects who had regular human interactions had longer life expectancies, even when they described themselves as "lonely."

One might conclude that relationships keep humans alive. But what about the organization? Do relationships between organizations contribute to their health? This is what Laurence Prusak and I asked in research we did for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Family Health Division in 2011. (See "Designing Effective Knowledge Networks" Sloan Management Review, Fall, 2013) We found that networks that cross the boundaries - for example, between nonprofits, community health workers, foundations, and other stakeholders - can have remarkable outcomes. They achieve geographic reach beyond each organization's traditional constituents, expand the scale of their impact, and adapt to changes in their ecosystems (such as new technology, regulation or funding sources).

That's not big news. Today it's fashionable for nonprofits to trumpet the value of what is commonly called a "communities of practice," especially "social learning communities" which use social media to connect. Many have embraced the model of collective impact -- doing good as part of a constellation of diverse, but coordinated, parties, united by a common philanthropic goal.

Yet, many nonprofits have also been surprised that genuine collaboration rarely endures when the community or network is left to its own devices. Members lose interest, content becomes stale, someone goes on a rant. In the end, everyone wonders why they started in the first place. In Prusak's and my research, we studied networks that have an impact. They innovate, they coordinate on a single philanthropic problem (like local education), they serve as a problem-solving resource for individual members, and/or they translate radical new ideas into action at the local level. A pattern we observed was that those that have such impacts can easily point to intentional design and shared leadership.


We interviewed experts and veterans of networks who had four types of impact. The Learning and Innovation type of network was Harvard's Learning Innovations Laboratory, who helped members to develop and adapt learning innovations. The member-support type of network was KM4Dev, who built connections and fostered collaborative problem-solving in a social media environment. The coordination type of network was those studied by FSG, such as Strive Network which enabled distributed Cincinnati-area programs to reform education with a transparent, aligned, and measured perspective. Finally, the translation or local adaptation network was the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's IMPACT Communities, whose members were not individuals, but hospital teams, who hashed out implementation strategies in the safety of the other IMPACT member teams.

How exactly do these networks operate? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation asked this question earnestly, as they wanted to "scale up" health innovations, particularly in the area of maternal and childhood nutrition. The networks to which we talked learned from their own activities, decentralized power, leveraged the diversity of their members, and -- most importantly on the matter of "scaling up" -- took advantage of the extensive ties of their members to integrate fragments of knowledge across far-flung members.

We knew we were onto something universal when we read Gavin Yamey's 2011 review of health system interventions. His "Scaling up Global Health Interventions Framework" nicely articulated what "scaling" takes:

"Choose a simple intervention widely agreed to be valuable, have strong leadership and governance, have active engagement of a range of implementers and of the target community, tailor the scale-up approach to the local situation, and incorporate research into implementation."

This is exactly how a successful network functions. In looking at Yamey's leadership question, in effective networks we didn't find that successful networks relied on a single charismatic guru, nor that leadership is simply intuitive. On the contrary, effective network leaders were a guiding group, inspiring, coordinating and modeling the type of democratic processes Yamey described. Moreover, they thought intentionally about the network's design.

It takes three types of design for a network to endure and prosper. Together, these make up what we call the "Eight Network Design dimensions":

Strategic dimensions involve:

1. Leaders' being cohesive as a team and sponsors' being visibly engaged
2. Having a crisp and compelling purpose
3. Having a welcoming stance for both experts and learners, and
4. Having clarity around target members, and how to recruit them.

Structural dimensions involve:

5. An operating model, including roles, charter, and decision-process
6. Convening structures, such as meeting spaces, document repositories, social media, and wiki pages, and
7. Facilitation practices for getting members engaged, spreading network norms, and helping members collaborate.

Tactical dimensions involve:

8. Measuring the networks' accomplishments, incorporating lessons learned, and implementing appropriate reward systems - such as peer recognition, virtual badges, publicity, or even award plaques.

Great leaders could show how those eight dimensions led to impact. Design results in "virtuous cycle" dynamics (e.g., "I contribute because meetings feel productive, and my contribution keeps the productivity going.") Such dynamics spur network members to act (e.g., sharing their LinkedIn connections, joint editing, and troubleshooting a fellow member's science question). Finally, such actions yield impact, such as reducing the cost to provide services, reaching wider populations, and capitalizing on cheaper and faster technology. (Check out the Women’s World Banking Leadership Community blog here for a great example of each of the eight design dimensions in practice.)

Now, with modern social platforms, it seems as if design would be unnecessary. Wouldn't Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, GooglePlus, and open source tools do the work for us? Tools give an illusion that network members are engaged because there's a shared hub, a browser-click way. But successful network leaders saw that generating true impact required agreement on where you're going and how to get there together. (Otherwise you'll end up somewhere else.)

This is the first entry in the "Designing Networks For Social Impact" series of blogs on networks and communities. Next week, look for a post about using the eight network design dimensions at Women's World Banking (microfinance). In April, the final post in the series about honing network goals by a community leaders at World Wildlife Fund (climate change) will publish.


1. Yoshi Benchler, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest, Crown Business, 2011
2. University College London team under Andrew Steptoe studied 6,500 men and women ages 52 +. Answered a questionnaire in 2004 or 2005 on sense of loneliness and how much contact they had with friends and family, then revisited in 2012. Study is here
3. Kania, John, and Kramer, Mark. "Collective Impact." Stanford Social innovation Review, Winter 2011.
Yamey, Gavin (Evidence to Policy, Global Health Group), "Scaling Up Global Health Interventions: A Proposed Framework for Success," PLoS Medicine June 2011, Volume 8, Issue 6. E1001049.

Go To Homepage

Before You Go