What do networks do that organizations can’t?
When I start working with emerging networks, usually within the first three months, I hear it. The concerns start to percolate. We’ve moved past the platitudes about “we can achieve more together than apart.” Leaders tentatively voice the questions at first:
“Do we ALL really need to come to ALL these meetings?”
“But what is the network going to DO?”
These are good questions. My answer to many social impact leaders surprises them, especially because I’ve spent the last 17 years working with and researching networks. I tell them:
“If you can do it alone, you should not collaborate, and you certainly should not create a network.”
All too often, foundations and funders urge social impact leaders to collaborate for collaboration’s sake. But the truth is, collaboration and networks are costly organizational designs. If they don’t pay off, it’s wasted time, money, and effort. But, there are several things that networks can do those organizations cannot do independently.
1. Networks can provide seamless navigation to individuals who need a set of services beyond those a single agency can provide. It’s a rare social service agency or nonprofit that provides for all of its clients’ needs. Instead, agencies rely on a set of contracts with local nonprofits to provide those services. And many agencies have different jurisdictions (e.g., income support, healthcare, housing). Service networks can provide wrap-around care to clients, provide referrals, and address co-occurring needs.
2. Networks can promote robust organizational learning in better ways than organizations can alone. Agencies and nonprofits often try to improve their programs and services through program evaluation and tracking key indicators of success. However, independently they can only compare their success to their previous performance.
In contrast, networks of agencies and nonprofits that provide similar services can benchmark their success against each other. They can find differences in program implementation that make a difference. Often program-level staff can learn from one another, and everyone’s programs can get better.
3. Networks can align services across a geographic area. In doing so, they reduce the duplication of services, ensure better geographic coverage, and address leaky pipelines across programs. Networks reduce the duplication of services by identifying clients or areas with several choices of providers for the same service. Although healthy competition among providers is valuable, often they are over-serving some client groups and under-serving others. The network can map providers across geographies, helping them most effectively use their pooled resources.
Additionally, networks can identify leaky pipelines in service trajectories. For education-focused networks, these are places where previous gains in the cradle-to-career pipeline are lost. For networks focused on economic development, these are places where gains in self-sufficiency are lost. Often these are places where individuals or families have moved out the qualifications for one agency because of their success. There may be another service provider for which they qualify, but they use different languages or have different requirements that are unclear. Networks can help build a bridge between the agencies. Or there may be a gap in service provisions between providers, where no one offers services. Networks can help identify and fill these gaps by creating new programs or helping agencies expand their existing programs.
4. Networks can facilitate new programs that take advantage of the unique competencies of member organizations. Network themselves are often not the best organizations to create programs. However, they are good matchmakers among member organizations. They can midwife new collaborations among service providers.
In rare cases, the new program or capital campaign requires the whole network of providers. In these cases, networks can create new programs that result from the joint inputs of the entire group. These efforts are often short-term since maintaining this level of collaboration is difficult.
5. Networks can coordinate advocacy efforts to make a more significant impact. Advocacy efforts can benefit from network approaches. In the most effective advocacy networks, organizations share the task-burden of campaigns. At a minimum, they speak with a louder voice because they represent more organizations.
So, yes, networks can be worth it, but only if designed to do something that individual organizations cannot. All of those meetings are only worth it when organizations can make a greater social impact together than they can do alone.