Image Credit: pyntofmyld via Flickr

Today, few doubt the potential for networks of people and institutions to deliver transformative change. However, just like with Ford’s “horseless carriage” at the start of the 20th Century, most of us are still applying yesterday’s tools, practices, and strategies to solve the 21st Century’s complex global challenges.

Under the auspices of, the Melton Foundation, Toniic, and Impact Hub-San Francisco, 20 network practitioners came together this past July to identify what these 21st Century approaches actually look like.

You might be surprised, dear reader, to know that most of the needs we discussed had little to do with formal or institutional requirements such as policies or financial support. Instead, we felt that catalyzing networks required basic changes in attitude, beginning with those who design and lead these networks.

For starters, transparency throughout the network is vital for ensuring the flow of information and ideas, whether it’s new water pump technology developed in Kenya being adapted in Paraguay, or sharing one’s success and failures. We also identified an inherent tension between transparency and privacy, whether it’s the intellectual property of that pump technology or the “outing” of network members. The balancing act between transparency and privacy is really about building trust — the oil in a network’s engine.

Another change in attitude that network leaders need to make relates to power dynamics. Traditional top-down hierarchy might have “worked” in the Ford factory, but it’s anathema to inclusive networks that need to incorporate a diversity of perspectives to generate or even co-create more powerful outcomes. The same explicit and implicit biases in wider society related to race, gender, class, and culture also manifest themselves in network power dynamics. We agreed that network leaders need to establish ground rules along with a supporting environment where it is possible to “call out” imbalances in representation or inequities in authority.

For example, in an African development network, is it white North Americans and Europeans running the show for “beneficiaries” downstream? If so, how can network roles and decision-making authority be deliberately restructured to make it more representative, co-creative, and ultimately more legitimate in the eyes of these beneficiaries?  Do women members contribute as much as the men in discussions? If not, who proactively manages the conversations to ensure that women have their turn and time to speak?  

If trust is the oil that makes the network’s engine run smoothly, that trust rests upon a culture of transparency, empowerment, and openness. Network leaders need to model this culture and practice what they intend to build. This is not easy. There is no cookie-cutter formula. Some contexts are inherently more hierarchical, some topics — human rights, for example — may require much more privacy over transparency.

Everyday we’re discovering new technologies to make networks, especially those distributed across boundaries of time and space, more impactful. We can now use asynchronous tools like Worldtimebuddy to schedule  synchronous meetings on platforms like GoToMeeting. Knowledge management tools from Salesforce to Google Drive are becoming more adaptable and user-friendly.

Tools are merely the enabler, though. It’s still the humans behind them that matter most.  Our great conversation at Impact Hub earlier this year made that very clear.


Click here to view our Catalyzing Networks for Impact Infographic, which summarizes key ideas from the session; and to learn more about the Melton Foundation’s work in leveraging networks for impact, check out this post.