August 29, 2011

Growing Network Impact

For decades, the primary pressure facing nonprofit networks was to build a bigger footprint—be in more places, serve more people. Now that pressure is being equaled by another: to get better. This executive summary outlines five critical elements for network improvement.

By: Mandy Taft-Pearman, Alan Tuck

Executive Summary

In the course of our work, we have seen several networks take promising steps to deliver measurably better results, and we have observed five critical, common elements in their efforts. This article describes those elements, drawing on the experiences of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Land Trust Alliance, National Academy Foundation, National Guard Youth Challenge Program, and Public Education Network.

These networks all:

  • Use the network’s unified strategy to drive decision making
    The organizations we observed devoted a considerable amount of time to honing a network-wide strategy before they began to try to improve effectiveness across the board. So although network members operate in distinct communities, serving populations or causes that may vary by geography—sometimes subtly, sometimes significantly—a common strategy was already keeping each site looking in the same direction.
  • Create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness
    These networks have all tried to identify a small, critical set of factors that are reliable indicators of effectiveness for affiliates, including “program dimensions” (such as results achieved by beneficiaries) and “organizational dimensions” (such as the strength of each affiliate’s board, or its fundraising ability). Having clear dimensions of effectiveness helps network and affiliate leaders set clear expectations for improvement, compare results in a constructive manner, and understand why some affiliates may be achieving more than others, and what supports those affiliates might need to improve.
  • Create paths for improvement for affiliates
    With dimensions of effectiveness identified, the networks we studied shifted their focus to defining intermediate, developmental stages. No network will have every affiliate modeling all successful practices, so this key element recognizes milestones that indicate movement in the right direction. Affiliates can then calibrate their own performance against those milestones.
  • Diagnose where the network is today and uncover pockets of strength
    Having figured out the developmental stages that characterize an affiliate’s progress, these networks have moved to diagnose their current state, giving themselves a baseline against which to measure progress. They ask: Where do affiliates fall on the developmental continuum? Are there pockets of strength, or weakness? How might the entire network strengthen performance, if affiliates could improve in one key area?
  • Capture knowledge that matters: Use diagnostic results to facilitate learning and improvement
    What aspects of improving should affiliates tackle first, and how can colleagues at different locations learn from one another? For this element, staff at the center seem particularly well positioned to help identify leading affiliates on any given dimension, and also to ensure that their expertise is easily accessible to the rest of the network. The center also can play an important supporting role by being intentional in its application of resources, incentives, and supports to help affiliates improve.

For help in thinking about how to transform your own network, please see “Preparing to Grow Your Network’s Impact,” planning guidance developed as a practical companion to this article.


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