Giving Compass’ Take:
• In this excerpt from Leading Systems Change, Heather McLeod Grant and Adene Sacks share insights into effectively building supports to sustain networks.
• These lessons are based efforts Fresno and Stanislaus Counties of California. How can these be effectively applied elsewhere?
• Read about creating cross-sector leadership networks.
In both communities, the Irvine Foundation provided two years of additional funding after the formal NLN program. While less expensive than the cohort-building portion, this phase was no less important. Because Fresno was the first NLN, we had no road map to follow, and we learned from our mistakes. At the time, we thought about network building and sustaining as sequential: First run the program and cross-weave the cohorts, then build the future container. In hindsight, waiting until the “end” to sustain NLN Fresno hampered its progress, which is why we took a different approach in Stanislaus, implementing these elements long before the formal program ended. In both communities, we eventually landed on a similar set of supports to sustain these networks over time, and we share some of them here.
Find a backbone organization. As noted in the workbook, one of the biggest lessons we learned from Fresno was the need to have a strong backbone organization in place from the start. The lack of a backbone in Fresno made it much harder to sustain the network once the formal program ended. But in Stanislaus, we partnered with the Community Foundation from the outset—and the difference this made is hard to overstate.
Nurture network governance. As the NLN Fresno cohorts came to a close, we established a steering committee, comprising elected representatives from each cohort, to help participants take more ownership over the network’s future. This committee helped decide what to focus on in the sustain phase, and how to allocate the additional two years of funding. In Stanislaus, we put an advisory council in place much earlier, during the second cohort. While the advisory council in Stanislaus also comprised diverse leaders, its members were self-selecting, making participation a good gauge of which leaders had energy to help lead the network going forward.
Hire a network weaver. In both Fresno and Stanislaus, we hired a network weaver early on—a member of the network paid as a consultant to engage members, help connect them to one another and to other community efforts, and actively supporting design teams and collaborations.
Cross-weave the cohorts. Another lesson from Fresno was to start weaving the full network early on. Tight-knit cohorts do not become a tight-knit network unless the pathway from one to the other is supported while the network is still developing. In Fresno, we had previous cohorts join each new cohort for a day at their final convening. In Stanislaus we started the work of cross-weaving the cohorts and nurturing a whole-group identity right after the second cohort graduated.
Host informal meet-ups. Both NLNs have been intentional about creating ongoing social opportunities that bring the network together and give members a chance to connect outside of structured convenings and after the formal program ends.
Support collaboration. The network collaborations or projects in Fresno were more organic, and we didn’t have a lot of structure in place to support them. In Stanislaus, because we decided to emphasize design thinking from the outset, we set up an innovation fund at the Community Foundation to support work coming out of the design teams. As a result, NLN Stanislaus leaders had access to small grants that they could use to hire a consultant or coach, buy supplies, or pay for team activities.
Provide ongoing development. In Fresno, network members expressed an interest in having ongoing developmental opportunities over the final two years of the grant. They requested and were offered expert-led trainings on board governance, design thinking, strategic communications, and facilitative leadership, among other topics. The network also self-organized a two-day “capstone” event at which they reviewed everything they had learned and taught key modules from the NLN curriculum to one another, as a way to help codify and cement key frameworks.
Facilitate peer learning. In Stanislaus, members have been less enthusiastic about bringing in outside trainers for ongoing professional development. Rather, they have chosen to create more peer consulting events, where NLN members come together at a leader’s request to help think through a specific challenge. One such peer consult focused on a challenge related to a homeless initiative led by an NLN member, while another consultation focused on water rights in Stanislaus. Network members brainstormed and prototyped ideas for addressing both challenges, adding fresh perspectives for the leaders to carry forward in their work.
Read the full article about effectively building supports to sustain networks by Heather McLeod Grant and Adene Sacks at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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