‘Network mindset’ emerging to address tough problems

The social sector increasingly is changing the way it takes on complex social and global problems, forming collaborative social networks or ecosystems in which organizations can accomplish far more by working together than by working alone, a new report says.

“Networks succeed by sharing resources of all types — technology, money, talent — — across organizations and fields to where they can have the greatest impact,” says Kathleen Enright, president and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, or GEO, which released the report and consists of 3,700 individuals representing over 430 grantmakers.

““This approach requires a few dramatic shifts for grantmakers,” Enright says in a statement. “We must share control, prioritize building relationships and get comfortable following instead of leading because moving beyond individual interests is the best way to make more substantial progress in our communities.””

Seventy percent of U.S. foundations work collaboratively through some form of strategic partnership, according to a national GEO survey of grantmaker practice.

“Yet, because networks are by definition loosely controlled,” GEO says, “understanding how to effectively support and leverage networked approaches feels like a mystery to many grantmakers.”

Networks increasingly are “vehicles for tackling challenges where resources are dwarfed by the vision of the task at hand, achieving economies of scale without organizational growth and spreading innovation,” says the report, Cracking the Network Code: Four Principles for Grantmakers.

Key to a “network mindset,” it says, are the principles of placing mission before organization, trust before control, and humility before brand, and of serving as a “node” rather than a “hub.”

“The network mindset is about advancing the mission, even before advancing the organization,” the report says. “Leaders adopt strategies and tactics to achieve the mission, not necessarily to stimulate organizational growth.”

In the network mindset, “trust and shared values are far more important than formal control mechanisms such as contract or accountability systems,” it says.

According to “conventional wisdom,” it says, organizations promote their programs models, build their brands and strive to be leaders in their field.

But in the network mindset, “organizations work alongside their peers as equals and willingly take a back seat when their partners are in a better position to lead,” the report says.

“Those who embrace the network mindset,” it says, “see their organizations as one part of a larger web of activity directed toward a cause, not as the hub of the action.”

Grantmakers “who focus on systemic problems, who are dissatisfied with incremental improvements, who are willing to be patient investors, and who are comfortable with fluidity and uncertainty are ready to consider network opportunities,” the report says.

By adopting a network mindset, grantmakers “can discover countless opportunities to work with other leaders” across the nonprofit, for-profit and public sectors “in ways heretofore unimagined,” it says.

Networks, it says, “hold the potential for generating impact at a scale exponentially greater than the sum of their individual parts.”

— Todd Cohen

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