Core Elements of a Network
In 2011, RSP set out to learn about networks of rural-based organizations that are using collective strategies to build local assets and create wealth that stays local. Their findings are detailed in the publication Rural Networks for Wealth Creation. The central themes we learned were the building blocks of a successful network.
In the years since 2011, RSP has served as the backbone support organization for two flagship networks in Central Appalachia, the Central Appalachian Network and the Appalachia Funders Network. The experience has deepened and improved our understanding about the original building blocks and have refined them here.
- Trust and relationships. Trust and relationships are the glue that holds a collaboration together. While relationships are built through networking, sharing ideas, and learning, trust among group members is best built when learning turns into aligned and collaborative work to accomplish shared objectives. Both are built over time as network members work shoulder-to-shoulder on coordinated work that meets their organizations’ and their communities’ interests. Building trust is critical for networks to take more risks and share resources more willingly.
- Shared vision, identity, and values. Collaborative groups come together around a common vision toward which members base their aligned activities and a shared sense of identity – through sense of place, experience, and/or issue. Similarly, the collaborative needs to have shared values to inform how it acts and works toward their collective vision.
- Shared analysis, goals, and work. It is critical that collaborative group members develop a common analysis of the challenges that the collaborative is coming together to address. Using the shared analysis, the collaborative can set shared goals, develop collective plans, and work together on a coordinated, strategic body of work.
- Shared measurement and communication of impact. A shared measurement system is important for understanding how well the collaborative group is working together towards their shared outcomes. While it can be difficult to measure the impact of a diffuse network or collaborative, it is essential to be able to understand and communicate the collaborative effort’s progress, influence, and impact. When collaborative groups have the ability to share how they are having an impact, it invites a multiplier effect of benefits, including more members, funding, and influence to achieve its objectives.
- Strong backbone support. Strong network management is essential for collaborative groups to grow, thrive, and accomplish their goals. Having a capable, committed, skilled, and focused network management team is a necessity. Since members of a collaborative group have their own work and organizations, the backbone support acts as an essential facilitator for the collective strategic agenda to move forward, ensuring all the connections among aligned activities take place.
- Clear benefits for local people. A collaborative group’s efforts must connect to the bread-and-butter issues that people face every day in their communities and their work. Collaboratives need to focus on getting something done; they also need to focus on something about which everyone is concerned.
- Shared power and accountability. Collaborative groups operate most effectively and efficiently when power, control, and leadership is dispersed and balanced. Backbone support finds ways to share decision making, direction-setting, and planning with collaborative group members and ad hoc groups (e.g. working groups and advisory teams). Likewise, collaborative members need the role clarity and mechanisms for holding each other accountable for moving the collective work forward. This accountability can be either formal or informal, but it needs to be effective.
- Internal communication. Communication within a collaborative group is important. People need to be in the loop and feel like they’re part of the loop. Conversations among collaborative group members need to be focused on things that are of value to them, rather than getting together just to talk and share information.
- Enough structure, but not too much. Collaborative groups need to strike a balance between having enough structure and having too much. Collaborative groups should focus on getting work done and let the processes, structures, and governance emerge from the group’s collective efforts.
- Clear benefits for member organizations. Network members are most engaged when there are clear and strong benefits for their organizations and their work.