An "Admirable Use" Policy


Will Richardson has an excellent post, Don't, Don't, Don't vs. Do, Do, Do, in which he muses on "acceptable use" policies of social media in schools and how restrictive and anti-learning they can be. Having spent the past several months working with clients on integrating social media into their organizations, this post really resonated with me. I'm finding that while a few places embrace social media as an exciting opportunity, many more are worried about defining and restricting every possible misuse of social media they can imagine. And I have to say that I'm consistently amazed at how imaginative people are in identifying potential problems. Where's that creativity when they're thinking about using this stuff?

Anyway, Will suggests that instead of a 10-page list of "dont's," we need an "Admirable Use" policy that positively describes the ways in which we'd like to see people using social media for learning. The items he would include are:

“Do use our network to connect to other students and adults who share your passions with whom you can learn.”

“Do use our network to help your teachers find experts and other teachers from around the world.”

“Do use our network to publish your best work in text and multimedia for a global audience.”

“Do use our network to explore your own creativity and passions, to ask questions and seek answers from other teachers online.”

“Do use our network to download resources that you can use to remix and republish your own learning online.”

“Do use our network to collaborate with others to change the world in meaningful, positive ways.”

For companies and organizations, I'd modify this list and add a few other items, as follows:

  • Do use our network to connect to colleagues and peers with whom you can share your passions and learn together.
  • Do use our network to find experts both within and outside of our organization to gain knowledge, information and perspectives from around the world. Use our network to reach outside of your normal geographic and interest groups to connect with people in a variety of disciplines and from a range of cultures. 
  • Do use our network to publish and share your best thinking and ideas. Seek out feedback and opportunities to refine your thinking. Use multimedia (visualizations, video, audio) to further explore and process your thinking.
  • Do use our network to explore your own creativity and passions, to ask questions and seek answers from other peers and colleagues online. We know that creativity at work results from exploring a variety of questions and answers across disciplines and we support your ability to do this.
  • Do use our network to download resources that you can re-use and remix or that will improve your productivity and ability to collaborate with others.
  • Do use our network to track trends and to listen to what people are saying about our industry, your profession, our customers and key problems and issues facing the people with whom we work.
  • Do use our network to identify problems and to respond to customer issues and complaints using the same standards of professionalism and courtesy you bring to your daily work. We trust you to use phones and email and to conduct yourself professionally in face-to-face meetings, so we know you will do the same in your social networking contacts.
  • Do use our network to collaborate with others--both within and outside of our organization--to change the world in meaningful and positive ways.

What do you think? Would you add others to the list?

Flickr photo via Luc Legay

Some Observations on Getting Value from a Social Network

Networks For the past few days I've been working with a group of grant-funded projects from across Pennsylvania who are evaluating whether or not to form a state-wide network and thinking through what such a network could do. One of the issues that came up (as it inevitably does) was how to share information, which naturally led to a discussion of social media and networks.

Last year I'd set up a Ning network for this group to use to share information and ideas. It never took off and we continued to send group emails and do phone calls and face-to-face meetings where people lamented the fact that we didn't have a better way to share information.

Yesterday when the issue came up, I reminded the group that I'd set up a site last year and described again what they could do with it. The response was somewhat warmer, but then we got into whether or not people wanted to visit one more information portal. Which led to a deeper discussion about whether or not people had the time to share best practices. Which led into a discussion about how to get "value" from networks.

What I realized was that people were looking at the Ning network as a respository for information, not as a vehicle for conversation. To them, it was basically a library that could hold everyone's tools and resources and to which they could go if they needed to look up some piece of information. While that can be one use of a network, I don't think that's the most valuable part of it. In fact, it became clear that although people said they wanted access to best practices, researching best practices wasn't really part of their work process. What they really want is access to people, something a social network is designed for, but that requires you to participate differently.

When the web is a destination for information, then you can visit a site as often or as little as you want with no appreciable difference in the qualtity and quantity of information you access. You can dip in and out and your visits do not impact the information you encounter. But when the web is a place where you're engaging in conversations, you can't jump in and out in the same ways. You have to put some effort into engaging with other people, into being social, asking questions, giving answers, even participating in "small talk." Using the web for conversation is not an event, but a process and, at least initially, it requires a fairly significant investment of time.

My personal opinion is that this initial social investment can have incredible benefits. By connnecting to other people, you start to get quicker answers to your questions and you are able to more easily find the RIGHT information, rather than a ton of resources you have to wade through. You also learn from the process of conversation with other people, answering their questions, seeing the kinds of questions they ask that may lead you to ask additional questions of your own.  Again, this requires an investment of time, so that's a major hurdle.

By the end of the meeting, the group had decided to try using the Ning network, but I can tell we have a long way to go. The members are going to have to make a major mental shift in recognizing that this network is about people, not information, and that they will have to put some initial effort into connecting with each other, rather than just connecting with the information. Should be an interesting process. Any suggestions on how I can help them make the shift?

Flickr photo via Nimages DR

Egocentric vs. Object Centric Networks: I Think I Know the Problem With Ning

Networks2 Three months ago we started the Building a Better Blog Ning network. After three weeks I was still enamored with the community. Things were going well, we had a lot of new members. All was right with our little corner of the digital world.

Then we hit a wall, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. Site activity was way down and we began struggling with ways to continue to maintain the community and attract new members. We're still working on that, but now I think I see more clearly why we've hit the wall, so to speak. It's because we're an egocentric network, not an object centric network.

Egocentric and Object Centric Networks
This was actually a new one to me, that I stumbled across while reading this article from Fred Stutzman. In it he explains that egocentric networks are places like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. They develop around the profiles of the people who join them. Object centric networks, on the other hand, develop around interactions over digital artifacts--like Flickr, which has formed communities around photo-sharing and, which focuses on sharing links.

In  Will Flickr and YouTube outlast Facebook and MySpace?, Josh Porter elaborates on Fred's thinking:

Fred has a lot wrapped up in here. First, the cleavage on the lines of ego vs. object. Social networking sites are ego-centric. Object-centric social sites, like Flickr, YouTube,, place something else at the nodes of the network (admittedly, though, Flickr is a tough one). I have previously called this the primary pivot. The way to ascertain what type of network you’re looking at is to look at what gets the URLs…what is the primary thing being shown at the URL? In ego-centric sites it’s a profile. In object-centric sites it’s the object…

Fred also suggests, and this is one of the best ways I’ve heard this described, that this is why migration away from ego-centric sites is easier than object-centric sites. It’s because we’re not storing anything other than our identity, which we feel like we take with us when we move to a new site, right? (even though all of the info we’ve submitted to the site is lost!) But we never feel like we’re taking our photos with us when we leave…they are obviously objects we possess.

Josh concludes that our ability to handle egocentric networks is finite--we can handle only so many people in our lives. But our ability to manage object centered networks is infinite, especially when it's so easy to share digital pieces of information.

So basically what we're saying here is that when people are interacting about an object (like a photo or a video), they tend to visit and revisit the site to add more of these objects and find new ones. In an egocentric site, though, once you've put up your identity, then what do you do?  Eventually you will probably get tired and move on (unless you're someone who has endless amounts of online time, like teens who are happy to spend hours on Facebook).

In thinking about our Ning network, I think that the fact that we formed the network around a common interest puts us in a funny in-between position between an object-centered network and an egocentric network. The common interest of better blogging is to some extent like an "object" for us--it pulls us together around a central theme more than might happen in a more general network. But at the same time, our profiles are a much bigger part of the community interaction than we might find in a place like Flickr. And there isn't the reason to go there to add objects that you have with a YouTube kind of network.

Another aspect of this "egocentricity" at Ning is that you have to have a network creator. In this case it was me and what I've found is that most people feel like I "own" the community somehow. Part of that is because I have the network controls, so that means I'm the one with the capability to make the most changes to the site and to send broadcast messages. But part of it is because every time you visit, there are signs everywhere that say "this network created by Michele Martin." Kind of hard to feel like the place belongs to the community when you see that plastered everywhere. And I know that I even add to this--when I first wrote this post, the first sentence started "Three months ago I started.  . " not "we started"!

I'm not sure that this takes me any closer to answers about what to do, but it does explain a lot about why we're facing the challenges that we are. What thoughts on this do you have? Does it ring true?

Graphic via Rob Goodspeed.

The Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Portal

In the past few days, I've found a number of new portals online. I'm starting to wonder if we can't learn a thing or two from what's happening.

First, via Eisenblog, came Open Learn University's portal, created by Stuart Brown in Netvibes to support OU students and instructors.

Then I find Crimson Connect, the student-run Harvard University portal, developed in the wake of student dissatisfaction with Harvard's "Official" website. (Take note--if you don't create a useful website for your organization, someone else might take matters into their own hands).

And finally, last night I see that Impactiviti has launched a Training Bloggers portal using Pageflakes, featuring feeds from some of the best bloggers in the training and development space. This on the heels of two other portals they've created--Pharmacentral for the pharmaceutical industry and the Marketing Bloggers portal for marketers.

So why should we care?

First, take a quick look around each portal. Harvard's includes access to email and Facebook, shuttle schedules, Boston weather, feeds to student clubs, athletic events and activities, the library--even dining hall menus. Open Learn University's portal has video lesson feeds, feeds to each of their departments, and a keyword search of their content. The Training Bloggers portal includes feeds to several different categories of T&D blogs, pre-selected for quality.

Think about how these types of portals could be used in the nonprofit world:

  • Create a "cause-related" portal that includes feeds to related blogs, audio, video, etc., as well as a calendar of events, etc. I've written about this before and I'm really seeing the possibilities now.
  • Create portals to support better conferencing. A few weeks ago, I was thinking about how to improve the conference experience. Portals are another option. Imagine sending an email out to all conference participants with a Netvibes or Pageflakes portal link that includes feeds to weather, newspapers, events, etc. in the location where you'll be holding the conference. It could also include a calendar of events and feeds to the wiki pages I suggested that you use to develop the conference agenda and get the conversation started. It could also include access to MySpace and Facebook modules, audio and video feeds on related content, email, etc. This can also become a way to follow-up on a conference, by adding feeds to those bloggers who are blogging the conference.
  • Create an organizational portal for staff and volunteers and make it the start page for staff so that they can be updated daily on what's happening in the organization.

Putting together a portal is really not that difficult. It's a matter of finding the content you want to include,  setting up the tabs in Pageflakes and/or  Netvibes and then sharing them with the world.

You can see how other people are already doing it. Tony Hirst blogs here about how he created the predecessor to the Open Learn University portal.  PC World  has an article about creating a Netvibes portal or you can check out this screencast that will give you the basic elements of setting up and configuring an account and using tabsharing. If you're interested in Pageflakes, then this tutorial can help get you started.

The tools are there. Many people are already using them. It's just a matter of us figuring out how to use them on an organizational scale to create value for various stakeholders. As I watch what other people are doing with these tools, I can't help but feel that we may be missing something big if we don't act soon.

Open Source Bidding and Innovation

A few weeks ago, Michelle Murrain asked a great question--How do we make change if we keep doing things the same way? (I would argue that you can't, but that's not the point of this post.) Now David Wilcox and some other collaborators are looking at how they can use a different process for a familiar nonprofit activity--responding to a Request for Proposal/Invitation to Tender (depending on your location). Writes David:

. . . the Cabinet Office wants to promote innovation among UK nonprofits, and is offering £1.2 million to anyone who can come up with a plan for a Third Sector Innovation Exchange - and also put it into practice over three years.

My initial reaction was slightly sceptical, because despite brilliant work being done by extraordinary people there are many barriers to innovation in the sector, and even more to sharing. Why give away your best ideas when competing for funding? Why try and do things differently if that would mean getting rid of most of your trustees first? As a fall back, there's the fatal "We have always done it that way."

Then I got a few calls from people who were thinking of putting in a bid, and we fell to wondering whether it might be done differently. If one of the things that stifles innovation is the way that procurement of services is handled, couldn't we demonstrate a different approach while still meeting all the tendering requirements?

The solution David's team is betting on here is open source bidding:

A small group is undertaking research and developing ideas for the bid online – and inviting others to join in the process. The inspiration for this approach comes from an increasingly collaborative online world, where people are prepared to allow others to build on work they have done.

They're inviting world-wide participation via their Open Innovation Exchange website  (created in Drupal, another open source environment) and asking interested participants to join in by:

  • writing about this on their blogs or other spaces with a link, or add this tag - openinex
  • registering on their site if you want to be associated with the proposal by adding specific ideas
  • contacting the organizers if you think you might be able to offer something to the core team

(Note that all content will have a Creative Commons license attached to it. More info on the bid and process here)

This is a really fascinating undertaking that I think has a lot of potential. As the organizers point out, if you're trying to get innovation, you should start by modeling it. Given that this project is about "piloting new approaches to fostering, exchanging and replicating third sector innovation," an open source process for developing the bid seems particularly appropriate. I think it's far more likely that the process will result in truly new and innovative ways of thinking than the "normal" mode of proposal development which tends to occur in isolated silos. As David aptly points out:

The difficulty in tendering for complex and challenging projects is that you know your proposals may well turn out to be inadequate because there's no way of figuring out in advance  what will work. Ideally the solutions have to be worked out with those who are "the problem". But if you do go in with a proposal full of co-creation workshops with stakeholders, there's a danger you will be seen as fuzzy. It's all too easy to end up either in tacit collusion between consultants and funders to do something rather inadequate, or acrimonious disputes about failure to "deliver".

Certainly this will be a test of the sector and its ability to break free of traditional territorial, scarcity thinking. In my more optimistic moments, I'd like to believe that organizations invested in doing good in the world could model the best of human behavior, which I think is what is asked for in this process. But there's a lot to overcome--our innate tendency to "preserve" our best ideas for ourselves, our sense of competition in a world where it seems resources are becoming ever more scarce, our fears about risk-taking. All of these are the mental barriers that people will need to overcome in order to really participate in the process.

For myself, I intend to hightail it over to the site and register. I want to be a part of doing things differently, even if it means having to push past my own comfort levels and into new territory.

Using Facebook in Your Nonprofit

Facebook_logo_2 I spent yesterday with my college freshman daughter who revealed to me the extent to which FaceBook has taken over the social lives of teens and twenty-somethings (with the "older folk" coming on fast). Let's just say that if it's not happening through FaceBook, then it's not happening. By sheer coincidence, I'd used the train ride into NYC to read (among other things)  Fast Company's profile of 22-year old (!) founder, Marc Zuckerberg.Then this morning this post by Rob Cottingham on the Turn It Off! British Columbia campaign he launched on the site slid into my inbox. Clearly I'm being told by the universe to blog a little about FaceBook. So a few resources . . .

What is Facebook?
FaceBook is a social networking site, an Internet site that allows users to post online profiles (including photos, information about themselves, etc.) and then connect to other users who share the same interests, experiences, etc. Zuckerberg threw up FaceBook while he was a student at Harvard to provide an online avenue for students to find one another. It has since morphed into a social network for everyone.

Why Facebook (or any social network, for that matter)?
The first question to ask yourself is why use social networking at all? What can a nonprofit get from the experience? According to this TechSoup article, "What Can Social Networking Do For Your Organization?" the answer is that you can get quite a bit:

"Social networking platforms give nonprofits a forum for meeting like-minded organizations and potential supporters, and provide a medium for spreading their messages beyond the immediate community," says Alan Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center.

In other words, social networking can expand your reach and help you find volunteers, donors and supporters for your cause inexpensively and relatively easily.

So you've decided to consider social networking. Why Facebook? There are tons of other social networking sites on the Net, including MySpace, Ning, Idealist and But as Katrin Verclas of NTEN noted in a March post, Facebook is where it's at right now. It has the most traffic and the biggest reach, and, as she points out, "it's infinitely less annoying than MySpace." (Agreed!) It's your best bet for finding people where they're already congregating online, especially if you're trying to reach the 18-24 year-old set. (Although as this article indicates, the 35-54 year-olds are coming on strong, with about 33% of Facebook users in this age group.) It's much easier than trying to create your own social network (ala Ning), where it can be difficult to attract and maintain users. It also makes sense to go where people are already engaging socially. It's the difference between going to the party and talking to people about what interests you or trying to throw a party that people might not even want to attend.

How Can I Use Facebook?
Besides the TechSoup article above, here are some good resources to check out:

  • Start with Fast Company's slideshow, "Eight Things You Can Do With Facebook". You'll see that you can connect with like-minded users, promote events, start your own groups, etc. You might also want to take a look at this profile of Facebook (scroll down to the features section), which gives a decent overview of the different Facebook elements.
  • Read through Rob's article on how he started his campaign and how he went from 8 supporters to 60 in a few days.

Whatever You Do, Avoid Looking Clueless
The one thing you CAN'T afford on a site like Facebook is looking clueless. No one sniffs out inauthenticity faster than a social network native. As the Chronicle's article reports:

"Any organization interested in leveraging communities on MySpace and Facebook must learn about them firsthand," Mr. Gammel says. "You will come across as clueless and wooden if you try to make a big splash in either place before you really understand their culture of interaction."

He recommends looking at social-networking profiles of other nonprofit organizations, examining how they interact with people online, and reading their blogs to get a sense of the tone and content online.

So your first task if you want to explore using Facebook is to join and observe the culture.Check out Martin Lemeiux's article on getting started with a Facebook profile.  I'd suggest having a staff person join on their own and then do some research for you. You might also consider talking to young people and asking them how they use the site and how they react to various nonprofit messages.

In addition to seeing how other nonprofits are operating, I'd also suggest looking into how your "target population" interacts online. I noticed, for example, that my daughter and her friends (the 18-24 year old set) are drawn into groups that use humor and off-beat group names.  One of her favorite Facebook groups is "You Know You Grew up in the 1890's When . . . " Yes, I typed that correctly--the 1890's. This group puts up hilarious "fake" posts about "Where Were You When McKinley was Shot?" and "What Should We Do With Kaiser Wilhelm?" This isn't the "normal" way that nonprofits would position themselves, but for a culture that really thrives on smart humor, you may need to think differently about how you market your groups and ideas in a setting like Facebook.

Finally, you may want to jump in cautiously at first, rather than going "whole hog." Set up a basic profile for your nonprofit, but then try using it at first to promote a specific event or online activity (signing an online petition, for example). This article on running ads on Facebook has some helpful ideas. Also see the Lemeiux article I mentioned above for some other options.

OK, so there you have my basic primer for using Facebook in nonprofits. If you're going to go the social networking route, this may be your best bet. It will take you less time and is easier than starting your own. It gives you another way to engage your volunteers, supporters and donors. And it's probably where you'll eventually need to be anyway. Online networks are a fact of life now and even if a lot of our constituents aren't using them yet, I think it's only a matter of time. Do you want to be ahead of the curve or behind the 8-ball.

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Nonprofit Networking Part 7: Creating Collective Value Through a Peer Assist Process

Peer_assist Recently we've been exploring the ways in which a nonprofit network can create collective value for its members. One strategy to consider is the Peer Assist, which I stumbled across on Nancy White's Full Circle Online Interaction Blog. You can watch a 5-minute animated tutorial on the process here.

Essentially a type of brainstorming session that reminds me of Open Space, the Peer Assist involves an individual identifying a problem or issue to address and then inviting up to 8 people to a facilitated 45-minute brainstorming session. The "Peer Assistee" (the person with the problem) must clearly identify the issue he/she wishes to address and then the problem-solvers will ask clarifying questions and offer possible solutions to the problem. The facilitator records all suggestions on flip chart paper and then the Peer Assistee uses this information to (presumably) solve his/her problem.

You can also run a "Rotating Peer Assist" that involves 20-60 people--several people with a problem and several facilitators with the problem-solvers rotating around the room to provide input and feedback for each problem.

Both of these strategies have potential I think as activities for nonprofit networks to engage in as network-building strategies. Some possibilities I can see include:

  • Having a "mini" Peer Assist as a regular part of network meetings. Potential Peer Assistees would submit their problems ahead of time and a portion of the meeting would be spent on brainstorming around one or two problems. This would have the added benefit of encouraging attendance at meetings because people both love to have their problems solved, as well as being able to offer help to others.
  • A Rotating Peer Assist would be a great idea for a half-day or full-day network conference. Organizers could identify a theme for the Peer Assist problems and/or consider having Community of Practice Peer Assists that relate to various job functions, such as having a "Case Manager Peer Assist Day" where case managers could present on their problems and get feedback from fellow participants. This seems to me a far better use of time that would be infinitely more engaging than the conference activities we usually see.
  • A technology-enhanced Peer Assist is another option. A wiki would be the perfect complement to the Peer Assist session. Rather than recording ideas on flip chart paper, they could be recorded directly into a specially created wiki. This would then be available for participants to add to later allowing them to provide links to other resources, sample documents, etc.

For those with higher technology comfort levels, I could also see an entirely web-enabled Peer Assist using Skype and a wiki to brainstorm.

Ongoing use of a Peer Assist process along with the use of a wiki or blog to serve as the online library of problems and solutions could be a great way for a nonprofit network to build a knowledge base that network members could repeatedly turn to in solving issues or problems. This is the kind of collective value proposition that can improve connections between members and start to build the knowledge and will for collective action.

Can you see other uses for this kind of process? Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE--Via Nancy's blog comments, Bill Harris provides some additional ideas on how to make the peer assist experience even richer, including using journaling to deepen learning.


Building Nonprofit Networks Part Six: Creating Collective Value with Individuals

Before I went on my little sabbatical earlier this month, I'd been working on a series devoted to Nonprofit Networking based on NetGains. In that last post, I talked about the need to create a collective value propositions in networks because it is the perception of value that makes a network greater than the sum of its parts. I had planned to next write about the developmental tasks of a network, but began to think more about collective value propositions and with whom we end up forming those.

In my previous posts, we talked primarily about networks formed with other nonprofits. There's a strong need for us to do this better and it's an avenue we need to continue to pursue.

But I believe that increasingly, our opportunities for growth, resources and collective action may lie in forming networks with individuals, particularly through the Internet. Yes, we need to find ways for nonprofits to work together better, but some of the most successful organizations right now are those that have figured out how to form collective value propositions with individuals, rather than with other nonprofit organizations. And this is possible only because of the new breed of web-based tools that have created a more interactive and participatory online culture. 

Creating Collective Value By Forming Networks with Individuals
Remember, there are four ways to create value in a network:

  • Providing connections to the right people
  • Sharing valuable knowledge
  • Providing access to skills and competencies of other network members
  • Providing access to resources that may be useful to other members

Yesterday, I shared the list of the 59 Smartest Organizations Online, developed by NetSquared, Squidoo and GetActive.  Many of the organizations on the list are there in part because they have made innovative use of the web to form more open and creative networks with constituents.  For example:

  • Several of the nonprofits on the list provide opportunities for micro-donations. Kiva allows donors to lend small amounts of capital to specific entrepreneurs they wish to support, thus providing value both through creating connections between the right people and access to resources for the entrepreneurs. ASPCA and  Modest Needs are other examples of nonprofits using micro-donation opportunities to foster collective value and action.
  • An example of a network that is leveraging the skills and competencies of individual members is Witness. Formed to encourage video documentation of human rights abuses around the world, Witness provides training and on-line resources that prepare people to videotape violations of human rights. Videographers can then upload their videos to the site, creating a comprehensive video library that can be accessed both by the public and by all members.
  • World is a nonprofit devoted primarily to bringing together world-changing ideas, resources and people. As their manifesto states, " works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us. That plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected. That the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present. That another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together." Their site uses blogging and commenting to share ideas and encourage individual ongoing conversations about ways to change the world, thus forming collective value around a wide variety of propositions.
  • Freedom Toaster is an unusual South African project devoted to putting vending machines throughout South Africa that are preloaded to dispense free digital products, including software, photography, music and literature. Their site provides all of the documentation necessary to built, install, maintain and customize Freedom Toasters, empowering users to create their own wherever they want. This is a network that is basically putting the tools, resources and competencies necessary to create the product into the hands of anyone prepared to act.

To me, a big part of the message here is that technology is enabling nonprofits to pursue the creation of new value propositions and the formation of new networks. Some organizations, like the ones I mentioned above, were created in part to take advantage of the ways that web technologies now foster collective value and action. But even more "traditional" nonprofits are benefiting from engaging individuals in support of their cause through smart use of the Web. The Sierra Club, GreenPeace, The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the ASPCA have all been around for years and each is working hard to better engage individuals in supporting their cause, not just through financial donations, but through collective productive action.

I believe that success in nonprofit networking requires us to do a better job of creating and nurturing networks of nonprofits. But I also believe that long-term survival and success may ultimately lie in our ability to create new and better networks with individuals. This means we need to pay attention to how we can create value and network connections in arenas where we may never have worked before.


Building Nonprofit Networks--Part Five: Creating Value

Network_1 For the past several days I've been exploring three types of nonprofit networks and the characteristics/features of each. Yesterday we discussed the need for networks to have a collective value proposition, which I promised to explore in more detail today.

According to NetGains:

"As goes the collective value proposition, so goes the network. The collective value proposition is what makes the network greater than the sum of its parts. As Heather Creech points out, 'If the network serves only as an umbrella for a collection of individual projects, it is not realizing its added value potential.' A collective value proposition is a commitment to joint value creation by network members."

How Do Networks Create Value for Members?
According to NetGains, collective value is a two-way street. Often when organizations begin to create a network, they are "organization-centric" in their thinking, considering mostly what they can get from the network, rather than what they can offer to the network. But to be successful, there must be a give and take in value creation--if everyone is there to take, there will be nothing to get. A collective interest must be forged, one that satisfies both your interests and the interests of others.

Networks can create value in four ways:

  • Connections--Connecting others in the network to people who may be able and willing to help them.
  • Knowledge--Bringing valuable information that others may not posses to the network.
  • Competencies--Providing skills that others may need.
  • Resources--Providing access to resources or funds that may add value for network members.

Collective value is created by the synergy of these four value options and how each individual network member finds and creates value through these options. What is critical to understand here is that it's the collective value that makes the network. Each network member must find at least one thing that they value from their membership in the network that is shared by other network members. They must also be willing to GIVE to the network in a way that creates value for the other members.

Further, network members must be willing and able to give up a degree of their own individuality and autonomy to buy into the collective vision that is created through membership in the network. Otherwise, as Heather Creech notes above, the network will not reach its true potential.

Collective Value in Connectivity Networks
Remember that connectivity networks are the foundation of all networks. They are formed to link people to people and people to information. Obviously then, the collective value propositions for those involved in a connectivity network will begin with the people and information each member can bring to the network.

Getting members to share both their information and their connections can be a challenge for network organizers. In my experience, there can be something of a "proprietary" flavor to what individual nonprofits are doing. Particularly in a competitive funding environment there's often a reluctance to share either information or connections. Yet failure to do so will doom a fledgling network to failure, as it is the access to information and people that motivates most network members in the first place.

The other issue here is how to make sharing of information and connections easy for members to do. This is where the presence of "weavers"--individuals who are in charge of making the linkages within the network and bringing in more network members--is critical. This is also where technology tools, such as e-mail newsletters, wikis and blogs, can play a role.

Creating Collective Value in Affinity and Production Networks
Affinity networks, remember, grow out of connectivity networks. They are organized around a set of shared values, approaches, etc. In other words, around a collective value proposition. Production networks then take this collective value one step further and translate it into joint action.

Affinity and production networks will continue to need the value that's created by people and knowledge. But in addition, they will also need members to create value based on competencies and resources. This is particularly important with production networks because they rely on the skills and resources of their members to get work done.

As with connectivity networks, the challenges for affinity and production networks lie in facilitating the process of sharing value contributions to create collective value. Careful attention must be paid to ensuring that individual members are monitoring "process," finding out who has what to offer to the network, and making linkages that can create new value for network members. Both face-to-face and technological strategies are necessary to accomplish this.

The Importance of Multiple Collective Value Propositions
While networks can be formed around a single collective value proposition, most networks find that they need to offer multiple  options  because different organizations will generally want and need different things. One nice example of this is Lawrence Communityworks, a network of more than 1,600 residents of Lawrence, MA:

". . . (the program) offers multiple value propositions through its many different programs for members. 'They are designed to draw people into the network,' explains Bill Traynor. 'They are doors into the network. Having many different doors is critical because it increases the chances that someone will find a reason to join the network.'"

Network organizers recognize that a key to network-building is paying ongoing attention to the value that members derive from their membership in the network. Different individuals and different organizations will find that they are drawn to the various ways they can be involved in the network, as well as the different benefits they find through their membership. The challenge is to continue to identify these needs and refine the ways in which the network is able to create and communicate this collective meaning.

In the next post on this topic, I'm going to take a look at the five developmental tasks of a network and how these play out.

Above, Original image: 'Lindsey's'
by: Kristine

Building Nonprofit Networks--Part Four: Affinity & Production Networks

Continuing with the learnings from NetGains on developing networks, today I want to talk in more detail about affinity and production networks.

Affinity Networks Build Alignment
As you'll recall, connectivity networks link people to people and people to information. Affinity networks build on these initial linkages to align the network around what is called a "collective value proposition." According to Platrik and Taylor:

" . . . a collective value proposition (is) a shared reason to care about each other. The individual people in the network come to share a set of ideas, language, standards or identity. This allows them to more efficiently exchange information and coordinate with each other as a group. They are more than just connected to each other, but less than focused on a narrow production goal."

The key difference between a connectivity network and an affinity network is that members of an affinity network must give up a measure of their individuality in order to align themselves more closely as a group with shared values and meaning. Affinity requires that members of the group develop enough trust for them to be willing to buy into the group proposition.

Key Tasks of the Affinity Network
In addition to continuing the weaving activities of the connectivity network, organizers of the affinity network must focus on strengthening relationships between members. They must allow members to come together regularly so that people can get to know each other to develop trust and explore their potential shared values and identity. The most effective way to do this is through face-to-face meetings. Technology can also support this process.

The other key task in an affinity network is helping members to forge their collective value proposition. To some extent this will happen as a natural result of contact with one another. But, this is a process that usually must be helped along by network organizers. In part this is because while individuals and organizations may have a lot of ideas about what the network can do for them, they tend to think much less about what value they can bring to the network.

Production Networks Develop for Specific Purposes
A production network builds upon the connectivity and affinity networks that have previously been developed and transforms them into joint actions for specialized outcomes.

The types of joint actions that production networks typically take include:

  • Generating particular goods and services
  • Advocating for particular polices or causes
  • Innovating to jointly address particular social issues
  • Learning about and spreading specific best practices
  • Mobilizing support
  • Building the capacity of local leaders or organizations

Structure and Activities of a Production Network
The structure and activities of production networks depends on their specific purpose. For example, networks that form to build public support will need to focus on rapid growth and "spreading the word." Therefore they are likely to be more loosely structured with many communication hubs that can quickly and efficiently move information through the network. On the other hand, a network that forms to provide after-school programming to urban young people may be more tightly structured with fewer organizations involved and much closer collaborative agreements developed.

Developing an effective production network requires that members be very clear about the specific purpose(s) of the network and the roles of network members in achieving that purpose. It also requires the development of connections and alignment. Production networks do not develop overnight in response to an RFP or other funding opportunity, although this is often they path that nonprofits take in forming a network. Work must already have been done around connecting members to one another, developing high levels of knowledge and trust, and creating alignment around common goals and values.

The Collective Value Proposition is Key
For all types of networks, but especially affinity and production networks, the development of a common value proposition is critical.  It is only through the creation of common value that you will gain the full effects of a network and be able to continually engage network members to achieve group goals.

In my next post on this topic,  I'm going to talk a little more about creating common value because it is such a key strategy for moving networks forward. Unfortunately, lack of attention to developing common value is one of the major reasons why many networks get stuck.