What I Learned About Networks at Summer Camp

What do funders really want from networks?

I heard one set of honest answers to this question this summer as I wrapped up consulting for the Lumina Foundation for Education.  “Camp” was actually the session “Funder Perspectives on Investing in Networks” that I had the honor to facilitate for Lumina’s partners and grantees in its KnowHow2 GO initiative.

Our insightful panelists were:  Warren Cook, Co-Founder, Maine Network Partners; Tessa Carmen De Roy, Manager, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation’s College Access and Success Initiative; Thomas Kelly, Associate Director for Evaluation, Annie E. Casey Foundation; Donnell Mersereau, Executive Director at Midwest Community Foundations’ Ventures and Vice President at the Council of Michigan Foundations; and Sheri H. Ranis, Program Director for College Preparation, Lumina Foundation for Education.

My key take-away was this:

The field of networks and supporting networks is evolving, and many donors and foundations aren’t versed in the work or see it as too complicated.  Even foundations that fund networks are still learning the difference between supporting a network setting versus a single-organization, direct service setting.  Ultimately, networks will have to “teach up” to funders and donors – proactively helping them connect network work to their own goals.

Their advice for networks and collaboratives

According to the panelists, networks that are most likely to attract funding have:

  • Genuine and productive relationships amongst members
  • Members that can clearly articulate the benefit of the network to their own work and the collective impact they’re trying to achieve
  • A bias toward action (the clear, interim steps toward longer-term goals)
  • Processes for learning and effectively sharing that learning with funders and other community leaders

Donnell noted that community foundations are particularly interested in a network’s role in increasing civic engagement and making community problem-solving processes more inclusive.

The panel advised that when approaching donors and funders, networks focus first on the ends – the outcomes for people or communities that excite people, even touch their hearts.  Tessa made the analogy that the outcomes are the movie we want to see and the network’s work is the “making of the movie” bonus feature that makes the story great.  That said, Warren and Tom warned that networks be careful to talk about evaluation and results in terms of “contribution” to solving a problem not “attribution” to a solution.  Even the best networks (or funders) can’t control everything in complex systems.

I’ll continue my “network funder camp” experience this fall at the Growing Social Impact in a Networked World conference.  I’ll share more of what I learn then.

What do you think foundations want to see in networks?

2 thoughts on “What I Learned About Networks at Summer Camp

  1. I believe that foundations who understand networks should think about funding “movements” rather that individual programs. What foundations need to look for are networks that embrace a collective vision that is articulate and focused. Also, adopting common metrics of evaluation is the best way to show a funder how you plan to gauge the network’s impact. As we can learn from the STRIVE initiative, collective impact goes beyond commonplace “collaboration”.

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