August 22, 2011

Facilitate Learning: Use diagnostic results to facilitate learning and improvement

This section of "Preparing to Grow Your Network's Impact" shares how nonprofit network centers and their affiliates can determine how to best utilize the resources that the center can provide and explore opportunities for peer learning among affiliates.

By: Justin Pasquariello


How will the network translate what it learns into action?

When it’s clear where everyone stands, the network and its affiliates must begin the hard work of getting better. What activities should get top priority? What is the network learning? How can that knowledge trigger a snowball effect of improvement?  When it’s clear where everyone stands, the hard work of getting better can truly begin. Now it is time for the center and affiliates to hammer out how best to utilize the resources that the center can provide. It is also time to explore opportunities for peer learning among affiliates.

The following may help make this part of the process run more smoothly:

  • Being clear about respective roles of center and individual affiliates
  • Being clear about where the center will focus its efforts and why
  • Maintaining the developmental (not punitive) mindset

The role of the center

Setting Priorities

As the network sets priorities for supporting affiliates and the network as a whole, they should also be thinking about where the center’s resources will have the most significant impact. There is no single “right” answer. For example, a center could choose to focus resources on:

  • Helping the most promising growing affiliates move into the high-capacity affiliate stage group
  • Helping affiliates in the emerging developmental stage that also work in a very high-need geographic area move up to a higher developmental stage, so they can more effectively serve that very high-need area
  • Building the organizational capacity of those affiliates that are strongest programmatically, but relatively weak organizationally, so they can more sustainably create value

Consider also the following factors:

  • The resource intensity needed to support and move a given group of affiliates
  • The center’s relative strengths and weaknesses, particularly relative to what affiliates can provide each other

Even if the center provides relatively less support to a given group of affiliates (say, those that are in a particular stage of development), the support can be more effective than past support if it is targeted toward addressing the key needs of that group. For example, the center might deploy limited resources to tailor an online toolkit for a particular group of affiliates, or focus on ways to improve the flow of communication among those affiliates, or between those affiliates and the center. 

Determining who receives which supports

The center can choose which affiliates will receive which supports, based on affiliate stage group, or can allow affiliates to self-select into the most relevant supports.  If allowing self-selection, the center can specify characteristics that would lead an affiliate to benefit most from a support.  The center can describe those characteristics in a way that is aligned with the affiliate stage grouping.

Affiliate planning for improvement

With information on its own performance, an individual affiliate can take time to celebrate its strengths, and can develop its own priorities for improvement.  Affiliates can then work with their boards, other stakeholders, and other affiliates to develop and implement an improvement plan.

Affiliates may also be able to help one another. Opportunities for collective improvement include:

  • Regional conferences and other convenings focused on common challenges
  • Mentoring from affiliates that are in higher-capacity groups to those in emerging groups
  • Mentoring/ technical support on a given dimension.  The highest performing affiliate/s on any dimension might consider dedicating time each year to training other affiliates to improve on that dimension

The center often is uniquely well-positioned to advise individual affiliates regarding which other affiliates can provide the best mentoring or support for their specific needs.

Disclosing affiliate performance

What information from the data collected—and resulting analysis—should the network share, and with whom?   If framed correctly, broad disclosure can be very helpful, but in some sensitive situations, full disclosure may not be possible or appropriate.  Your network will at least want to give affiliates information about their own performance in comparison with peer averages, and if full comparative data isn’t given, staff at the center should still look for ways to connect affiliates with others from whom they can learn. 

Returning for future planning

Ideally, your network’s developmental stages should evolve over time—as more affiliates move up from their current stage to a higher one.  That said, you probably will want to keep to a single, consistent developmental stage scheme for at least a few years. Doing so will allow affiliates to get acclimated to the new approach towards improvement and avoid their facing too many changes that distract from daily work.  You might not want to go too long before re-evaluating the old developmental stages, however, so as to determine if the network should tighten/toughen standards to foster even more progress.

Case Study: National Academy Foundation

The National Academy Foundation (NAF) is a federated network of more than 400 high school academies that offers students rigorous, career-themed curricula designed to prepare them for college and meaningful careers in fields as diverse as finance, hospitality, and engineering. Starting in 2009, and driven by a strategy that required network improvement, NAF’s leadership worked closely with a steering group of its academies to develop a self-evaluation tool that tracks performance indicators related to fidelity to the national model. Read more>>


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