August 22, 2011

Before You Begin

Before diving in to "Preparing to Grow Your Network's Impact" consider the questions outlined in this section. Mapping out a high-level "plan of attack" for your network’s own approach will give this work the best chance of success. In particular, it’s useful to consider your anticipated timeline, the leadership team you’ll assemble for the effort, and the stakeholder input you’ll need up front, and along the way.

By: Justin Pasquariello

Questions to Consider Before Diving In

As part of this Before You Begin section, you will find resources that will help you determine whether your network is ready to consider the five elements as well as guidance on designing a process for your organization.

1. Does your network have a cohesive strategy that incorporates improvement?
A cohesive strategy is the prerequisite for any effort to improve results across the board. You’ll need such a strategy—one that maps out common network goals—in order to figure out what activities, skills and resources really matter most in terms of achieving the results you seek. You’ll also need the common ground that such a strategy provides in order to diagnose where the network is now, and determine what needs to improve.

If your network does not have a cohesive strategy, we recommend that you read: National Networks: Planning Can Align a National Nonprofit Network for Full Impact.

If you do have such a strategy, but it does not explicitly call for network improvement—for example, if your strategy focuses on growth in number of affiliates first and foremost—then using the five elements described in this guide may not be the best way to advance your strategy at this time. In such a case, these materials can help you think about how improvement might factor into your strategy, and how you might develop an improvement plan that will complement your growth strategy.

2. Are affiliates and the center willing and able to deploy the resources needed to make the Five Common Elements work?
The center and affiliates must be able to commit—as needed—time and, sometimes, money for this process.  It’s also important to consider whether the intensity of this process is the right match for your network; for example, small networks may find the process to be more formal and structured than they need.

3. Are network members ready to accept the tradeoffs that can come with this approach?
To ensure the best chance for the network to improve as a whole, this approach may require a shift in the way the center allocates resources among affiliates. Our experience has shown that the majority of affiliates ultimately benefit from more appropriately tailored services and support, but that there can also be an adjustment period.  Engaging representatives from across the network (affiliates and the center) in the planning process—so that everyone understands the longer-term gains that are possible—can increase the buy-in needed to make this approach succeed.

4. Is there enough similarity across affiliates’ operating models that this approach will be useful?
Almost every network allows some variation and experimentation among affiliates. For this approach to be useful, your network will need to come to agreement on the most important—and common—programmatic and organizational dimensions of performance. It is therefore worth confirming ahead of time that there is enough similarity in how affiliates are operating that it will be possible to identify a concise list of those critical common dimensions. Referring to our section on “Which networks will find this useful?” in the Introduction can provide additional assistance on this question.

5. Do affiliates and the center collectively have the resources and ability to collect necessary data?
The success of this approach—applying all five of the elements—ultimately relies on a network’s ability to gather relevant data, consistently. The degree to which this data is qualitative or quantitative will vary by network. But the bottom line is that in order to improve effectiveness, you’ll need to have a reliable way to assess current performance, and improvement against that performance. While few networks have the ability to gather comprehensive data on all aspects of performance, your network will want access to at least some data for the diagnostic elements of this approach. You may need to invest in building a system and creating a process to collect and analyze data; committing to this investment is essential.

Designing Your Process

Mapping out a high-level "plan of attack" for your network’s own approach to the five elements will give this work the best chance of success. In particular, it’s useful to consider your anticipated timeline, the leadership team you’ll assemble for the effort, and the stakeholder input you’ll need up front, and along the way.


Start by looking at the Process Overview, below. Use that document, in conjunction with your review of this planning guidance and your knowledge of your network’s own unique circumstances, to map out a realistic timeline for network improvement. Expect that some course corrections will be needed as you go. 

Five Common Elements - Process Overview

To download a PowerPoint copy of the "Five Comment Elements-Process Overview," please click here.


As is true for any significant organizational undertaking, having a single point person to oversee the effort as a whole is important. This person should have the skill, authority, and respect (from both the center and affiliates) necessary to run a collaborative learning and improvement process.  His or her role will be to ensure that the process moves along, and that decisions are made in a timely way (though he or she may not have the final authority to make decisions). To learn more about setting up an effective decision making process, please see RAPID Decision-Making: What it is, why we like it, and how to get the most out of it.

Stakeholder input

It's important to include representative viewpoints—from affiliates, the center, and other stakeholders—in this process.  Some networks choose to convene formal planning committees; others seek broad input but have smaller working groups.  However your network approaches this, you will want to balance the inclusion of representative viewpoints with a process and planning team that is manageable in scope and size.  Even the largest networks will want to cap the size of any planning group; too large a group can become cumbersome, and can stall momentum. Surveys, interviews, focus groups, newsletters, and/or other tools can help you maintain a wider conversation and increase buy-in across the network.

This type of work may be new to many people in your network. Clearly communicating expectations and the required time commitment upfront will be particularly helpful as potential planning- or working-group members seek to make informed decisions about participating.

Here are some questions for the center and lead affiliates to consider as they develop the planning process:

  • How many affiliates should be engaged to build the level of affiliate support and excitement that will drive success?
  • How will the network choose which affiliate representatives to engage? Considerations might include:
    • Mix of 1) the "usual suspects": those who have been highly engaged (and often successful) in the past—and 2) those who haven’t been as engaged in the past.
    • Geographic diversity
    • Diversity in affiliate size
    • Strength of relationships between affiliate and rest of network
    • Diversity on other dimensions, based on the unique circumstances of the network (e.g. urban/ rural; primary population composition)

You may also want to create an "influence map," that outlines the connections and influence that already exist among your suggested planning group members and the affiliates in your network. An influence map can make it easier to ensure that most affiliate leaders see another organization like their own in the planning group. It can also make it easier to ensure a two-way flow of information among all affiliates in the network and the planning group members.  

Here's one simple example of an influence map: If your network has subgroups of affiliates that meet annually, you could list those subgroups, and ensure each has some say in the process. Then at least one affiliate from each subgroup could report out to other affiliates in that group, and could help gain their buy-in. Here’s another example: Your network may have regionally influential affiliates or others with large spheres of influence; you might sketch out their spheres of influence to ensure that most if not all affiliates are paying attention to the work of at least one affiliate involved in the planning work.

Depending on your type of network, and your purpose in doing this work, engaging other stakeholders (beyond affiliates) may be an important input into this process. Funders, community partners, and potential future volunteers/ participants are likely candidates. Consider conducting interviews or surveys of these stakeholders; depending on your network’s unique situation, it can also sometimes be helpful to include one or more of these stakeholders on your planning committee.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.