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

Nonprofit Networks Part Three: Using Technology to Build Connectivity

Yesterday we discussed connectivity networks and how they are the foundation of all collaborations. As you'll recall, connectivity networks link people to people and people to information. They are characterized by loose ties between people and they tend to form around "hubs" or people who are able to connect people to other people and to relevant information.

All networks, especially connectivity networks, are strengthened by face-to-face interactions. These in-person connections help people form more trusting relationships with each other and they are often the most effective way to conduct certain kinds of work. In this post, however, I want to talk about how I believe technology can support the creation and development of connectivity networks.

Two Major Elements to Connectivity Networks
To form strong connectivity networks, you must have two key elements--a strong informational/navigational element and people responsible for nurturing the connections between people and between people and information. In other words, you need useful, valuable information that people are looking for and you need at least one person to help them connect with that information and with other people in the network who can also serve as sources of information and connection.

It's important to remember that relevant, timely information and access to "the right people" are the major currencies of connectivity networks. People and organizations want to join  networks that connect them to these two things. Further, they will not maintain their connections to a network if they do not have access to good information and helpful people.

Supporting the Spread of Information in a Connectivity Network
The explosion of the Web has created an associated explosion of information. It has also created new tools for gathering, managing and sharing information in ways that are more meaningful and useful. For nonprofits wishing to create connectivity networks, these two developments create great opportunities.

What Information Should You Be Sharing?
To create your connectivity network, consider who it is you want to bring together and what kinds of information they may need. Think about:

  • Potential gaps in information needed by network members
  • Opportunities to put information needed by different organizations into a central repository to be shared by all network members.
  • Sharing of best practices and common resources
  • Consider creating communities of practice among people with common issues and needs, such as a case manager network or a network of grant writers and then focusing on their information needs.

One example of what we're talking about here is told in NetGains:

Chris Lynch has spent three years weaving together the hundreds of organizations that provide after-school sports programs for youth in Greater Boston. His work was supported by the Barr Foundation, which was concerned that thousand of youth were not being served, especially urban youth and girls. Lynch's assignment was to start connecting the scattered after-school sports organizations to each other and to resources they could use. In early 2006, he published the 25th e-newsletter of Sportsnet, part of a website that provides information to network members and facilitates communication between members.

Another example is the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which has created interactive hunger maps showing the locations of hunger resources throughout the city.
As described in a recent TechSoup article,

"(Through this project, they sought) to compile a comprehensive list of all known soup kitchens in the area, but also to facilitate collaboration and communication between local pantries to help them reduce duplication of efforts, better target their limited resources, and unite in their public-advocacy efforts."

The key is identifying the kinds of information that are considered useful, relevant and timely for your nonprofit network. Think about the information you wish you had. Ask other potential network members what information they think is missing or too fragmented to work with.

How Do You Gather and Share the Information?
Newer web technologies provide great opportunities for both finding and sharing the kinds of information that will build a strong connectivity network.

To gather information, consider using tools such as Google Alerts and RSS feeds to keep yourself updated on the latest news and stories from around the Internet. Find blogs that are written by knowledgeable people in your nonprofit field and get in the habit of reading them to find useful information you can share with network members.

You must also be prepared to go "off-line" for valuable information. While there's a lot of information readily available online, great sources of information in the nonprofit world will also be found in print materials, at meetings, and in other "real-world" interactions.  In fact, some of your most valuable information may be "hidden" within your individual network member organizations and the key may be finding ways to move this information into a shared, central location that is accessible to all.

To share information, you have many options. Like Chris Lynch above, you might start with an e-mail newsletter and a basic network website for sharing links to resources and to other members of your network. Blogs, wikis and "mashups" provide other options for sharing information in ways that can be more useful and relevant for your network members. You can also use tagging or social bookmarking as strategies for sharing information on common topics.

Supporting the Development of Community in Your Connectivity Network
The other major component of a connectivity network is the development of connections between people and organizations. It is critical to recognize that connections between organizations are based on the connections between individual people.  To foster connections between nonprofit entities, you must foster connections between the individuals within those organizations.

Remember that the creation of community in a connectivity network depends on the work of  "weavers." These are individuals who are like the hosts of your network party. They introduce people to one another, explain the culture of the community, and help people connect to the information they are looking for. Weavers pay attention to process and to ensuring that there's ongoing access to good, relevant information available to the members.

How Can Technology Help Build Community and Make Connections Between the People in the Network?
The development of community is based on interactions with other people. While sharing information (as we described above) can start to help network members develop a sense of common needs and approaches, simply providing information to members is not going to build community. This requires 2-way communication that allows network members to "talk" with other members.

Obviously in an ideal world, these interactions would take place face-to-face. But limitations of time and location can be a barrier to in-person interactions. Technology allows us to overcome these barriers. It also allows connectivity networks to form between organizations and people that might otherwise be isolated from one another. These connections are often the source of great innovations and growth.

There are a few technology options that can start to build that sense of community:

  • E-mail is probably the simplest strategy. Weavers can use e-mail to answer individual questions and to connect network members to one another, suggesting, for example, that one member of the network might be a valuable contact for another. E-mail listservs (like Yahoo Groups) can further support this community development as individual members are able to interact with the entire group for advice, information, etc.
  • A network blog is another potential option. Network members can easily contribute articles and resources. They can also use comments to respond to the information that members share and to begin conversations that may be followed up via e-mail or through other means.
  • A wiki may be a great tool to develop if your network needs to create a repository of shared information. Wikis are excellent ways to share resources and best practices. They make it easy for members to add their own content and comment on the content added by others.
  • Using photosharing with sites like Flickr allows network members to  post pictures and information about themselves and their organizations. This creates a new kind of connection as members are able to "see" other members and what they do.
  • More "advanced" users of technology may want to consider developing and sharing relevant podcasts or using tools such as Skype to generate free, online phone calls between members. Use of social networking sites like Care 2  or MySpace may be another strategy to consider, depending on the members of your network.

The technologies a network selects to support the development of community will depend on the needs and capacities of the network members. It also depends on the level of commitment the network is willing to make to developing and supporting the growth of community.

It's critical to remember, though, that more "advanced" networks--the ones nonprofits rely on to get work done--first require the successful development of connectivity networks. Failure to pay attention to the initial development of connectivity will create a very shaky foundation for later collective action.

In my next post on this topic, I'm going to go into more detail on the development of affinity networks, which build on the foundation of connectivity to create a common value proposition.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.