The Platform

Tea plantation in south Tanzania.

In recent years, social impact organizations have faced increasing calls to work with others to realize their goals. Organizations are encouraged to grow their networks or evaluate their impact in terms of what is achieved with others. However, beyond encouraging organizations to partner with others, funders are often confused about their role in supporting networks as they pursue social impact.

Funders have long encouraged organizations to document their collaborative efforts in grant applications and introduce organizations to possible collaborators. Some funders have incentivized collaboration by awarding prizes to organizations that demonstrate their success in working with others. But determining whether a network has achieved social impact is challenging, regardless of where the network operates or what social problem the network seeks to address. Supporting international networks can be particularly difficult given the cultural divides and physical distance between partners.

Our research on collaboration and networks has led us to examine global north-south divides among NGOs combating HIV/AIDS, referral networks among gender-based violence NGOs in Zambia, environmental alliances in the Netherlands, and agricultural campaigns in Burkina Faso. Below we offer five insights into how governments or foundations can best support international networks dedicated to achieving social impact.

Funders must recognize – and communicate to grantees – the expectations around social impact.
Social impact refers to that which benefits the broader community or environment in which the network is embedded, as opposed to outcomes for the organizations involved or the network itself. It refers to those impacts that have occurred because of the network’s efforts. The social impact must be more significant than outcomes that might have occurred regardless of whether a network formed or not.

It can be particularly tempting to view the network’s survival as a success. We’ve seen, for example, that organizational leaders can become preoccupied with securing or maintaining funding or other organizational participants. Additionally, networks that aren’t required to measure impact by their funders typically don’t do this critical work. Although financial resources can inform network success, network funders should focus on evaluating social impact and provide expectations for how the impact is measured.

Funders should consider funding networks that organizations develop themselves.
Research suggests that funders mandate partnerships and influence collaborative efforts as they develop. However, our research in Zambia indicated that referral networks formed by local partners were more productive than networks constructed by international funders. What we referred to as “grassroots” networks tended to be populated by organizations headquartered in Zambia or Africa instead of in the United States or Europe. These networks tended to be more loosely organized than the top-down networks convened by international agencies – but exchanged more referrals as they helped survivors of violence meet health, legal, housing, and economic needs.

We typically hear from the organizations that they were encouraged to partner with other agencies – and often, that the specific partners were encouraged for them. But research suggests that networks are more cooperative if organizations choose their partners. Although funders are often encouraged to play matchmaker between organizations, the final decisions on network membership may be best left to the organizations themselves.

Funders should build and support infrastructure to sustain the network.
Funders love to support collaborative efforts because they think that organizations working together can reduce waste and improve outcomes. However, this is not necessarily the case unless the organizations have what they need to work together.

Networks are expensive, and financial resources are essential for network effectiveness. Our research suggests that despite more sophisticated technologies, many nonprofits rely on old-school methods, like email, to sustain their collaboration. We’ve even seen networks nearly go off the rails because they don’t have a shared place to keep their notes. Funders can help by providing support for shared repositories, case management software, teaching platforms, or project management software. Beyond simply providing these resources, funders can support efforts to train network participants and maintain shared tools on an ongoing basis.

Funders should consider incentivizing individual organizations.
Although we argue that funders should be particularly concerned with whether or not networks achieve social impact, we do recognize that individual organizations often have their reasons for joining a network. Moreover, network participation typically means that participants are working two jobs. They continue their efforts as a paid employee of an organization and unpaid work to participate in the network and the meetings, campaigns, or joint projects that the network requires.

Funders can acknowledge these divergent interests, but moreover, they might consider incentivizing individual organizations for their participation in the network. One of our favorite examples comes from a U.S. initiative, the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative. Participating organizations pool their data in the hopes of serving broader populations in Chicago, but individual organizations also receive monetary incentives for reaching their organizational goals.

Funders must realize that networks require long-term funding to achieve impact.
Networks are often forced to manage their efforts within the constraints of funding cycles. Because many foundations award funding for three-year cycles, networks might be limited to just a short time. However, research suggests that three years may be just the bare minimum amount of time before networks see any result of their efforts.

Our interviews with network leaders confirm this. It takes a lot of time to pull together the financial and human resources needed to launch a partnership, develop trust between partners, and implement any new programs, services, or advocacy.

We believe that funders – whether government or foundations – have an essential role in encouraging networks for social impact. But too often, limited expectations exist for how funders should play this role, particularly in an international context. Refining expectations for international funders is a vital step in achieving social impact.

Katherine Cooper and Michelle Shumate are co-authors of the recently released Networks for Social Impact.

Katherine Cooper is an assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Communication. She received her PhD in communication from the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. She teaches classes in small group communication, communication consulting, and organizational communication.

Michelle Shumate investigates the dynamics of interorganizational networks designed to impact large social issues, developing and testing theories to visualize, understand, and enable effective interorganizational networks in a variety of contexts including nongovernmental organization (NGO)-corporate partnerships, development and disease NGOs, expert-NGO partnerships in sustainable development, and interorganizational networks for healthy communities.