The Rise of Networks in Philanthropy

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Diana Scearce of Monitor Institute.

By Diane Scearce

image I spend far too much time thinking about networks. Why do networks matter to social change? How can funders tap their power? How do they relate to movement building? What’s their role in ‘scaling up’? Talk of networks was everywhere today at the GEO conference. What does this mean for grantmakers?

The day kicked off with a plenary session on scaling. Angelica Salas spoke of her work on building a national movement for immigrant rights, rooted in the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Angelica said, “Coordination for us is a necessity.” So, they work through a nationwide network of state-based coalitions that are speaking live on a weekly basis, sharing what’s working, listening hard, stepping forward at times, and stepping back to take others’ strategies when needed. She’s a true network weaver. So, what does it take to support this kind of work? Angelica’s ask: a line item for collaboration, coalition building, and network building—things that philanthropies typically don’t fund.

Bill Strickland was speaking alongside Angelica. He spoke of his work scaling the Manchester Bidwell model for learning and community development. He’s using an affiliate model—job training centers in cities throughout the US and around the world, linked through strong relationships. It’s what I would call a ‘multi-hub network’ – multiple centers connected to one another. There appeared to be thoughtful network design. It’s not a command and control model. It’s about “pushing power to edges” – or in Bill’s case, to the affiliates. And, as Bill said, “Relationships are where you achieve scale.” However, I left confused about how this is going to work in practice. How will learning about what works flow among the affiliates? How will governance be structured? What’s the role of center (Bill / Manchester Bidwell) and what’s the role of affiliates? I’ll look forward to learning more from Bill’s work as the job training centers are built around the world in the coming years.

Then, I got the chance to hear Manuel Pastor talk on movement building (such excitement and it wasn’t event 9am pacific time yet!). I highly recommend his paper on social movements and how to support them. Manuel’s work has helped me understand networks as an important vehicle to movement building. One of the recommendations he offered was, “support networks and network building to sustain success.”

The day finished with my own session on funders’ roles in networks. By design, networks were at the center of that conversation. There was lots of interest and enthusiasm for figuring what it means for funders to be intentional and strategic about how they support and participate in networks.

Why does this common network thread matter? It matters because today I saw ample evidence of a growing appreciation for the power of increasing impact through models that are decentralized and relationship-based—what I call network models. And, supporting this work requires a special mindset. It’s one that is comfortable with ambiguity, oriented toward the long-term, and places high-value on relationship building.

Have you noticed a similar trend? What skills and practices will this require for grantmakers?

You can read more blog posts from Diana and her Monitor Institute colleagues at