July 2, 2015

7 Elements of a Successful Advocacy Network

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For this month’s Connect theme, we are highlighting some of the speakers, facilitators, keynotes, attendees, sponsors, and scholarship recipients of the 2015 Leading Change Summit in Washington, DC September 13-16.

This year has been one for the books for national social movements, and behind the headlines for each of the historic victories that we have seen this year is an effective network of people. Lessons learned from these enormous, powerful movements can be easily translated into smaller networks as well—such as among project teams or within organizations—and can help foster a culture of collaboration.

Networks can be particularly powerful structures, because they grow in value and usefulness as they scale up resources and participation. They allow resources and needs to flow among the nodes and create new alignments driven by the demands of the users. A key part of the strength of networks is how well they foster collaboration between participants due to the general lack of a top-down structure.

However, just because a set of people or a movement fits the general structure of a network or calls itself a network, doesn’t mean it is one. And if it is a network, it still may not be especially functional or effective. When a network lacks one or more of the seven elements that tie the people together (see below), it can experience cascading failure―collapsing quickly, completely, and spectacularly. However, by building network capacity intentionally and with a bit of discipline and clarity, risks can be mitigated, and the focus can stay on fostering a culture of collaboration.

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Within each of the networks behind social change victories, there are seven essential elements that make them functional, collaborative, and effective. The following seven elements comprise a framework that should be integrated into any advocacy network: social ties, a communications grid, common language, a clear vision, shared resources, actors, and feedback mechanisms. Each of these elements is important and crucial in its own right, but it’s the combination of these elements that create the ties among the people and give a network genuine capacity―and strong network capacity creates the most effective environment for collaboration.

Reinforcing social ties between people helps create a sense of trust – key to meaningful collaboration – and helps create relationships capable of withstanding the stress of natural disagreements. People also need various ways in which to communicate; some people prefer different methods, and not all methods are right for every situation. For example, a listserv is great for quick communication but not as good for in-depth strategic planning. There also should be a focus on different modes of communications: one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. All methods of communications among people make up the communications grid of a network.

As members of a network work together more closely, a common language starts to develop. It is important to make sure that everyone is on board and understands the terms and phrases being used in order to minimize confusion. Similarly, another needed element of any network is a clear vision for what the group has set out to achieve. Sharing this vision with everyone helps to create clarity and focus around goals and tasks. And speaking of sharing, one of the many benefits of a network structure is the ability to share resources. For example, sharing email lists, technology, or trainings saves participants money and time spent on what would otherwise be duplicative work.

Much like traditional workplaces and organizations, each network must also have a variety of actors— people who drive the activities of the network by monitoring resources, creating messaging, outlining participant responsibilities, receiving feedback, and more. Generally speaking, there are four different types of actors: drivers, who participate in networks specifically to tap into the resources they need to organize change; weavers, who serve as both the welcome committee and those who help reconnect people across the network; supporters, who are there to be a resource to others―adding voice, sharing resources, and being willing to contribute to efforts to create change; and operators, who make sure the lights stay on and the rules of the network are followed.

These roles are fluid, and actors often shift from supporter to driver or step in to help make connections, moderate a discussion, or plan a major campaign. Each role is essential. The key to sparking collaboration when integrating the elements into any network is to give everyone an opportunity to participate in the way they fit best.

Finally, any network must have solid feedback mechanisms in place to help leaders and other participants understand the trends, resources, and needs of the entire network. The ability to gather feedback that will help a network grow and refine activities is crucial to transparency and success. In turn, a network’s members can be motivated when they see their successes and trends. The network’s leaders must also be able to respond to feedback and effectively readjust network actions and priorities based on this information. Without feedback, organizations can be blind to critical information that can help improve it.

These seven elements can be used in a variety of situations to help create ties so collaboration can flourish: advocacy networks, among staff of an organization, or even in your own personal networks. (If you’re interested to see how your network stacks up, our team is working on a rapid network assessment tool to evaluate the strength of each element within a network. Note: it’s still in beta.)

Over the years, we’ve also learned that this framework can be just as crucial to building the capacity necessary for fostering a culture of collaboration within our own organization and Board of Directors. In the session called “Building an Organizational Network to Foster a Culture of Collaboration” at the Leading Change Summit in September, we’ll talk more about each of these elements in depth and discuss the best practices and technology that make each of them fall into place. We will work together to lift up the practices we all use to build network capacity within our organizations already, and leave with new ideas to put into practice to help our organizations and the networks we work in grow, create, and flourish.

Hope to see you there!

Marty Kearns
Marty Kearns pioneered the integration of network-centric principles into civic organizing and social change work. He drives the strategy, vision and development of Netcentric Campaigns, working with advocacy leaders from nonprofits and foundations to further their understanding of the powerful role networks of people can play in all elements of their work.