Practicing What I Preach:
Creating a network to study and advance networks for impact
By Jane Wei-Skillern
I have been doing research and teaching in the social impact field for fifteen years and have met countless social sector leaders over the course of my career. While I am always impressed by the good intentions and the drive of these leaders, only on rare occasions will I find a ‘needle in a haystack’. A leader that works tirelessly with a single-minded focus on advancing the mission rather than their organization, a leader who is better at being humble than at self promotion, works well with trusted peers and routinely advances the field ahead of their own interests. These are some of the most accomplished leaders that you likely have never heard of. They have helped to generate social impact efficiently, effectively, and sustainably in fields as wide ranging as environmental conservation/climate change, housing, education, international development, economic development, animal welfare, and health, among others. These leaders have achieved tremendous leverage on their own resources by catalyzing networks directly with the communities that they serve and supporting the development of local capacity to serve these needs on an ongoing basis.
Although I am often referred to as an expert on nonprofit networks, I emphasize that everything that I know about networks I have learned and continue to learn from the practitioners who are doing the work in the field. My role has simply been to listen, learn, and distill the patterns and lessons to be drawn from their collective experience and to package these ideas into publications or presentations so that others may learn from these leaders’ wisdom. It is fascinating to see that while these leaders and organizations played vastly different roles in their networks, some providing funding through philanthropic foundations, others running programs directly on the ground, in different types of institutions some well-established and others fledgling, across different issue areas, they are incredibly similar in their approach. These leaders and their networks routinely demonstrate through their actions,
- a commitment to an ambitious vision,
- dedication to the mission before their own organizations,
- reliance upon long term, trust based relationships to govern the network,
- humility rather than brand building in their work, and
- a heightened awareness that they are merely one among countless others that must work in concert to ultimately achieve the mission.
This mindset, and its values and approach, are relatively rare in the social sector. As one network leader has described “it is common sense, yet not common place”. In the field of social impact work, there is still an overriding emphasis on promoting individual social entrepreneurs/social enterprises , with innovative solutions, that seek to address the world’s problems by building and growing institutions.
From studying these network leaders and the networks of which they are a part, I have become increasingly convinced of the tremendous power of network leadership, and have made it my own life’s work to share the stories and lessons from these networks to enable others to unleash their potential. With the rise of collective impact and interest in collaboration, networking, strategic alliances, (insert your favorite buzzword for collaboration here) over the last five years, there is a window of opportunity to share the wisdom from experienced network leaders themselves on what it takes to catalyze and sustain thriving, dynamic, high impact networks.
A key element that I have learned from my research is the critical importance of leadership, not in the traditional charismatic sense, but rather that of servant leadership, core values, not in words, but as demonstrated through action. The key to successful nonprofit networks seems to be a culture in which actors routinely invest resources into building long term, trust based relationships without the expectation of control or even recognition. Much in the spirit of President Truman’s quote “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”
“The key to successful nonprofit networks seems to be a culture in which actors routinely invest resources into building long term, trust based relationships without the expectation of control or even recognition.”
It occurred to me that it was high time that I begin to practice what I preach and instead of trying to raise visibility for the importance of the human dimension of network building on my own. I should bring these network leaders together and brainstorm together how we might begin to change the culture in the field so that network values and leadership become the norm rather than the exception in social impact work. What started as a kernel of an idea nearly two years ago, came to fruition a few weeks ago when my colleague Nora Silver, Founder and Faculty Director of the Center for Social Sector Leadership, and I convened a dozen experienced network leaders who collectively have spent nearly 200 years catalyzing, supporting, and sustaining networks in their respective fields. They were excited by the opportunity to meet peers, of like mind facing some of the very same challenges and tackling them with the same approach that results in high leverage, high impact, yet with low control. They routinely support their peers and partners to meet their own goals, magnifying their efforts, developing synergies and field wide capacity to continue to serve the mission.
While the focus of the meeting was primarily to introduce these leaders to each other, and develop a community of practice whereby they could learn from and support each other on an ongoing basis, I also had a more ambitious goal to begin to develop a field level influence strategy that involves sharing the stories and wisdom from network practitioners themselves to change the norms around social impact work so that network leadership is supported, celebrated, and practiced widely. In particular, we sought to explore ways that the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley-Haas could help support this effort. At the Center, we seek to play a support role to those practicing or interested in practicing this approach to add momentum to existing efforts. While we know what expertise and resources we bring to the table, there are many others in the broader field that are working toward the same goals. We don’t pretend to have all the answers for how to achieve this ambitious goal, but suspect that our ability to convene and curate may be key part of the contribution. From our meeting, there were unexpected benefits that arose for attendees. As attendee J. Jean Horstman, CEO of Interise, an economic development organization, remarked after the meeting “meeting you all helped hone my ability to spot others using our shared approach. It was a robust discussion, and one that just scratched the surface of what we know individually and collectively. I look forward to continuing the conversation.” Indeed, the conversation has just begun, and I invite any of you readers who are interested to reach out to me to explore how we might collectively advance network leadership to change the world. I welcome your thoughts and partnership.
Four Network Principles for Collaboration Success (pdf), The Foundation Review, 2013