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Starting a Network? Eight Design Issues to Consider

Reposted with permission from the Connecting to Change the World blog. As more social change agents and philanthropic funders consider building networks, rather than organizations, to achieve their goals, they have to figure out what’s involved in successfully starting a network. Usually, in our experience helping to start dozens of social-impact networks during the past 10 years, the founders and funders know some, but not all, of the network design issues that have to be worked through at the beginning—and what they don’t consider can come back to haunt them. There are two creation stories for networks of organizations or individuals seeking to achieve a social-impact goal. In one, the network bursts into life out of an unpredictable mash-up of like-minded people who share a problem, get together to see what will happen, and then invent a common path forward. They share a belief that pooling their resources and collaborating might get them what they want, but they don’t know what they’ll do together. In the other story, the network is managed carefully into existence, the result of analysis, planning, and negotiation. The founders initiate the process to achieve more impact by getting organizations to collaborate. But to engineer the collective effort they have to analyze the problem they want to solve and its causes, and determine who should be involved in solving it, what they should do together, and how to do it. Whatever the different origin of social-impact networks, the start-up tasks for designing them are essentially the same. Our experiences with network startups has allowed us to identify eight design issues that network builders should address during the start-up process:
  1. Purpose: What is the network’s reason for being?
  2. Membership: Who is eligible to become a member, what are the membership requirements, and how many members will there be?
  3. Value Propositions: What will be the benefits of membership—for individual members and collectively?
  4. Coordination, Facilitation, and Communication: How will network members link and work with each other?
  5. Resources: What is the network’s funding model?
  6. Governance: Who decides what the network will do, and how do they decide?
  7. Assessment: How will the network monitor its condition and performance?
  8. Operating Principles: What rules guide the network’s culture?
Quite often we find that network founders have anticipated some, but not all, of these design issues. For each issue, there may be many options and there’s no one right choice—there’s the choice that is right for the network you’re building. Network-building practice isn’t based on applying a one-size-fits-all formula. It involves selecting from a repertoire of possible decisions and actions, based on an understanding of the network’s situation. Take, for instance, the design of network membership. You have to decide who is eligible to become a member and how “open” or “closed” the network will be; how many members to have and whether to cap the number or allow growth; whether there should be several categories of members with different benefits and responsibilities, or just one category; and what the requirements for participation there should be. We explore each of these eight design issues in depth in the second chapter of Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact, and offer practical advice about how to handle them. Because some of the issues re-emerge later in a network’s life or persist from startup to finish, we also examine them closely in later chapters on managing a network’s development and resetting a network’s design. Successful networks are designed—they don’t just happen. Knowing a network’s essential design issues and how to make—and when to change—design choices is a crucial part of the practice of building effective social-impact networks.