Network Structures Need Heart

by Robin Katcher and Mark Leach

As leaders work together to increase scale and impact through networks, many of us are asking practical questions about how to create governance and leadership structures within the networks that can advance work, make decisions, encourage accountability, embody stated values, and strengthen our movements more broadly. As we’ve worked with leaders, organizations and networks across multiple movements on questions of governance and leadership structures, some shared elements in the structure of their network formations have emerged.
 

Elements of Successful Network Structures

 
 
  • Heart: At the center of the work is the network’s purpose, guiding principles and impacted constituency. Like a human body, this acts like the heart pumping essential energy through the network, bringing it life, and guiding and keeping the work on its path.  
     
  • Coordinating Body:  This body can go by several different names: Steering Committee, Coordinating Committee, Design Team, etc. It helps shape the network and coordinate its activities. It helps to create the culture of the network, align members around goals, authorize teams and ensure they don’t work at cross-purposes, identify gaps in membership or strategy, listen to and engage those at the periphery, and represent the network as a whole to outside players. This body reflects the diversity of the network’s membership, serves as a liaison to the teams, and makes a deeper commitment of time, organizational assets, and leadership capital.   They often hold some decision-making responsibility – for example, review and approve budgets and large expenditures, and raising resources to support the network. Some networks begin with this smaller team of trusted leaders and build outward from there. Others start with a larger group and select the composition of this smaller group.

  • Network Management: This staff person(s) is accountable to the network and wakes up every day focused on the success and needs of the network.  This role holds the vision for the network, advances the implementation of network strategies, builds the power and capacity of the network to advance its purpose, attends to relationships and dynamics among members, lifts up critical issues to be addressed, supports leaders throughout the network, and ensures decision making processes are clear and transparent. It can be a volunteer or paid position and can be full or part-time as needs and resources allow. This role often entails a mix of administration, coordination and leadership functions.

  • Teams: Groups of members come together to advance key elements of the network’s agenda. Some teams play an on-going role but many are self-organizing and/or temporary and come together and dissolve as the work demands. Team leads are selected to help call meetings, prepare agendas, facilitate conversations, and coordinate the work of the team. Often teams may be joined by consultants, experts, or members’ staff carry out aspects of the team’s work. 

Consider, for instance, a team charged with developing messages to move legislators and the public to support their issue.  This team might have a group of communications directors from member organizations, one or two of which acts as team lead.  The team is also supported by a communications firm that can conduct polling, draft messages, and test with focus groups; or one of the organizations might make a significant portion of a staff person’s time available to deliver that level of expertise. 

  • General Members: These are the organizations that make up the network. The success of members and the network are interdependent.  Members provide the strength and power of the network overall.  And the network is accomplishing work critical to the success of members’ missions and movement and that they could not achieve on their own. Each network carefully considers the composition and requirements of membership – such as deciding what mix of organizations reflect the needed constituencies, capacities, geographic reach, movements, and/or sectors needed to be successful. Members align action, guide the work, implement strategies, serve on Teams, and provide leadership for Teams and the Coordinating Body. All networks must ensure strong and frequent feedback loops among the members, teams, coordinating body and constituencies so that the work can be continually improved and aligned with opportunities and needs.
     
  • Allies: These are organizations, entities, or individual leaders that support aspects of the work but are not able to fully participate as members. This might include organizations or leaders from other related movements or partners from other sectors or constituencies. These allies may engage in specific activities, inform the work of the network, and help make connections to audiences that can support the work. For instance, if bridging sectors is fundamental to network success, actors from community organizations, funders, government and business may all work together as members of the same network. In other instances, given the purpose of the network, some organizations or leaders from some sectors may be more effectively engaged as allies.
     
  • Movement(s): For movement networks there is a constant conversation about how the work of this particular network will advance broader movement/sector/field goals, address gaps in strength, and/or accelerate change.  Some networks also consciously build strategies that help link the work of multiple movements/fields or sectors and lift up the intersectionality of those efforts – breaking down silos and building greater collective momentum for change.  For example, the growing connections between economic justice, immigrant and LGBTQ communities around access to family leave has generated significant political power and policy change.
     
  • Communities and the Public: Given the purpose of the network, they may also seek to organize, educate, empower or engage the public more broadly.  Naming who you are trying to engage in the broader public and how they too can feel connected and a sense of ownership in the work is often fundamental to building power and ultimately to having success. 
     

Remember, It’s Not All About the Structure!

While having a visible structure is necessary for members to navigate the network and work together, successful networks don’t hold too tightly to structure.  It is just a tool for advancing the work.  Network leaders are constantly monitoring the structures to see what impact (intended or unintended) it is having on the whole.  What doesn’t work well in the structure must be adjusted or allowed to die.  What does work well, might only work for a while. 

Clinging to a fixed structure may help us feel less anxious in the face of network complexity, but it can also limit our thinking. 

Clinging to a fixed structure may help us feel less anxious in the face of network complexity, but it can also limit our thinking.

It is a sign of trouble when you sense any of the following is happening:

  • The network is only imagining solutions that the current structure can support
  • Roles in the network are feeding egos, more than serving the whole
  • New ideas and leaders cannot access the network and contribute to shaping its direction

What seems to be the best driver of network structures is a clear commitment to realizing the fullness of our shared purpose, guided by our shared principles and values, rather than attachment to what has been.

On the flip side of this, leaders are also learning how to create flexible structures within their own organizations in order to adapt to this network context. Check out what we’re learning about this here