“There is scant evidence that isolated initiatives are the best way to solve many social problems in today’s complex and interdependent world. No single organization is responsible for any major social problem, nor can any single organization cure it.” —John Kania and Mark Kramer

Organizations from the public, private, and social sectors are coming together to address complex social challenges that impact their communities, yet too few address upstream, system-level issues that prevent social problems in the first place.  Those looking to move beyond programmatic activities that only manage problems should consider designing a generative social impact network.

What is a Generative Social Impact Network?

A generative network is a social-relationship platform—a “human operating system.” They are designed to be a platform for generating multiple, ongoing kinds of change, not just accomplishing a single outcome or silver-bullet solution. You make a social-impact network generative by building on the basic human desire to connect, share, belong, and make a difference.

In these networks, decision making is distributed throughout the membership. The networks have minimal formal rules or structure, and their structure may change rapidly. This makes them less stable but more adaptive than organizations. As a network begins to understand more about a complex problem, they have to adapt their approach to solving it —a process through which stakeholders who see different aspects of a system can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.

Download the Designing Networks for Social Change Primer

The Designing Networks for Social Impact primer describes key principles, considerations, and decision points for those looking to build and/or improve cross-sector collaboratives focused on making an impact on their social issue.

Ten Lesson for Network Builders

After designing and studying dozens of collaborative networks, CivicLab captured ten lessons for network builders to consider:

  1. Don’t dictate the network’s purpose; co-create it with potential start-up partners.
  2. Be open to surprises; don’t try to pin everything down.
  3. Lead, but allow others to co-lead in organizing the network.
  4. Let network membership expand naturally through members’ connections, not through the builder’s dictates
  5. Intentionally dilute your power over time.
  6. Entice other funders into the game.
  7. Make sure you know what other network members think about your ideas, and don’t override their concerns or objections.
  8. Step up to support the monitoring of network health.
  9. Recognize that having anyone in the network exercise dominance erodes, rather than builds, the network. (if whatever governance structure you set up can’t call the dominant character on that kind of behavior, then there’s a design flaw)
  10. Patience is essential and will be rewarded.
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