Published by Working Wikily on 05 Nov 2009 at 10:37 am
Over the past 6 months, I’ve had the pleasure of facilitating a community of practice for funders supporting networks. The question that keeps coming up is: how to make the case that working through and investing in networks will produce the intended social impact? At the same time, the belief in network impact is becoming more widespread–-the potential for organizing without organizations, the power of developing a strategic understanding of webs of relationships, and the promise of openly sharing both data and new knowledge.
There is more and more experimentation with network models for social impact. There are a handful of funders investing in these experiments. Yet there is only limited evidence to make the case that networks work. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make that case. As a strategy consultant, not an evaluator by training, I come to this with truly a beginner’s mind. Here a few things I’m learning about assessing network impact in collaboration with the network funders community of practice.
- Top of the list: assessing the impact of networks is really hard.
- People participate in networks for multiple reasons (and similarly, funders fund networks for multiple reasons). It’s hard to align around and clarify desired outcomes – and/or figure out how to assess progress towards multiple sets of outcomes.
- Network impact can be hard to see. It’s difficult to measure causality (or even simply track activity) in decentralized, complex systems with lots of players.
- Some of the most powerful network impact may be unexpected. How do you measure the impact of emergent, self-organized action?
- Finally: it can take a really long time to achieve measurable impact.
Added to the challenges is the fact that, according to evaluators I’ve spoken with, the tools for assessing emergent systems are lacking. (Social network analysis does seem to be promising in some cases, though it is resource-intensive). Kudos to the evaluators who are bravely taking on the challenge of measuring network impact!
Challenges aside, what can you measure? I really like the framework set out by Madeline Taylor and Pete Plastrik in Net Gains, and Bruce Hoppe and Claire Reinelt in “Social Network Analysis and the Evaluation of Leadership Networks” (both highly recommended reading). In both these thought pieces, the authors outline three levels of network impact to consider:
- Connectivity: what is the nature of relationships within the network? Is everyone connected who needs to be? What is the quality of these connections? Does the network effectively bridge differences? Is the network becoming more interconnected? What is the network’s reach?
- Overall network health: how healthy is the network along multiple dimensions (participation, network form, leadership, capacity, etc.). How have participants been impacted by the network?
- Field level outcomes: what progress is the network making on achieving its intended social impact (e.g. policy outcomes, innovative products)? How do you know?
The network funders community of practice has been working on this question: how do you make the case, and what principles to keep in mind when assessing the impact of networks? Here are few starting points:
- Be clear about 1) the network’s value proposition, 2) expectations for the network, 3) to whom is the network accountable, 4) the donor’s role in the network
- Pay attention to network history and context
- Gather data from diverse perspectives, including feedback from constituents outside the network
- Emphasize learning over near-term judgment, so that the purpose is not punitive
- Focus on meaningful contribution toward impact
- Integrate into an ongoing process of network learning and adaptation
- Build capacity to conduct self-evaluation
What are you learning about making the case for network impact? How do you know networks work?
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