Funders Role in Catalyzing Collaboration in Networks (or Undermining It)

Funders inherently have significant power in a system. The way that they use their funding and positional authority can have huge impact on whether a network works effectively. At the Northern New England Networks community of practice gathering I attended this week, a group of network leaders, funders, and consultants reflected on the question: In your work with networks, where have you seen the power that funders have used skillfully and where have you seen it not used skillfully?

I came away appreciating in new ways how foundations and other funders can play a positive catalytic role in networks and systems change, as well as how they can unintentionally create dynamics that hinder networked collaboration. Here are some of the key aspects of how funders can skillfully support network approaches to change:

Encourage Network-Designed Solutions vs. Foundation-Designed Solutions – As the value of networked approaches becomes more apparent, more foundations are playing the role of convener to invite their grantees and others to form a network or work in networked ways. The challenge is that traditional approaches to philanthropy are often fairly top-down and directive, e.g., the foundation develops a strategy and wants outcome-focused work completed by the grantees they select. Networked approaches have a fundamentally different orientation – the combined wisdom of the diverse parts of a system is brought together to identify the most impactful areas to work on for change and who needs to be at the table. This is more of a bottom up approach where the actions and outcomes get determined from those working on the ground with the input of diverse perspectives rather than from a funder or narrow perspective.

“Systems thinking suggest that effective changes in complex systems cannot be dictated by actors in any one part of the system – that lasting changes require many diverse actors and points of view to help produce solutions.”
– Kristi Kimball & Malka Kopell, Letting Go, Stanford Social Innovation Review

In using their convening role skillfully, foundations can invite and engage people to work in a network and invest in the facilitation support to enable the participants to understand the system and discover the most impactful areas to collaborate on. Letting the participants direct the focus of the network and the design of its decision-making and meetings is key to ensuring that people find value in participation. The issues and focus of a network’s work or programs will always be changing so this is an ongoing process of listening and adapting to participants’ needs and how the larger context is changing.

Create Conditions for Collaboration – When multiple organizations are brought together to align their work for greater results, how can funders help create the conditions to enable fruitful collaboration? The funder’s aim should be to create conditions that catalyze sense of shared purpose, learning, self-organizing, and innovation. Some key elements to create this type of environment are:

  • Ensuring that the group process and decision-making is facilitated well so that the participants can discover their shared purpose and agree on areas that are most valuable to work on together. Key questions are: What will make this group so valuable that you will devote time to it? How might this collaboration enable you/your organization to achieve things you can’t do alone? The level of engagement, collaboration, and value created is quite different when participants come to consensus on this value proposition versus a foundation requiring their participation and/or setting the agenda.
  • Creating a sense of consistency/assurance with funding, e.g., grants that are multiple years, so organizations participating can focus on the joint work rather than worrying whether they have funding or feeling competitive with their peers for scarce funds. Uncertain timing of funding or lack of transparency on plans and funder objectives can generate anxious focus on “what does the funder want?” rather than “what does the system need or what is most valuable for us to do together?”
  • Providing funding to participate in the network so that time invested is not seen as an “add on” to an existing full plate of work or as somehow secondary. For smaller non-profits or for participants representing important perspectives, such as farmers or teachers or parents, this may mean providing stipends, gas cards, or other resources so they can afford to participate.
  • Creating conditions for learning and innovation requires skilled facilitation and decision-making and time/resources for reflective learning, research, and group brainstorming. Another valuable way to support this is to create an Innovation Fund or Common Projects Fund that the network can access to implement priority projects. When networks or work groups within it identify key projects, research needed, or innovations to spread, resources can be readily available to make this happen. When this connection between joint learning and action is working, people see the results of their work and are further motivated to participate. If participants can receive additional support/funding to collaborate with others on network priorities, this is an additional incentive.

Navigate Power and Equity Dynamics – Despite the best of intentions towards equity and social justice, the way that networks are created can perpetuate the inequities in the system that we are working to change. In the choices of where the network is housed, who coordinates it, who is invited to participate, and/or who is funded, foundations can set up certain groups with more power than others. The well-connected groups with more power tend to get more funding and “voice” while those representing the more marginalized people/issues or emerging needs may not get access or have their voices heard or influence the joint agenda.

Funders, with the power of their funding and direction, can play a leadership role in changing status quo power dynamics. They can be intentional about convening diverse networks, encouraging input and meaningful participation by the less traditionally “powerful,” and developing governance models that share authority and decision-making. A healthy network reaches beyond the usual suspects to engage a wide periphery of diverse voices. Funders can also invest in building the capacity and willingness of participants to go beyond their own comfort zone to engage across difference and create meaningful change.

Measure What Matters – Effective collaboration in networks is built on trust. A colleague recently said, “networks can only move at the speed of trust.” Trust takes time to build and it is cultivated through attention to and investment in relationships and process. The pervasive focus in social change is Action, Outcomes, and Results – often in part driven by grant cycles and funder requirements. Network approaches are a different way to create those outcomes and results, yet the focus on only certain kinds of quantitative results can discourage the investment and willingness of participants to do the work and take the time needed to capture the benefits of networked collaboration. Social network analysis, surveys, case studies and other means can be used to evaluate network health and how effectively relationships are being strengthened and the network is being created to generate the ultimate results. Especially in the first few years, it is critical to set measures of success that motivate the behaviors that strengthen trust and encourage generous exchange and collaboration, including expectations for timing of measurable outcomes.

Much more can b
e said on each of these topics, so we encourage you to add your comments. What have you seen work and not work in how networks are funded?

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