Diagnosing a network's current state in detail ideally means having easy access to robust data. For large networks with hundreds of agencies, such access requires a strong technology platform. Consider the experience of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS). BBBS, the nation's largest youth mentoring program, has worked since 1904 to provide children with positive adult role models through one-to-one matches. While revising its strategic plan in 2010, the organization's leaders determined that they wanted to refine the way the network measured and improved performance. Fortunately, several years before, with an eye towards gathering consistent and comparable information, the network had created a common data technology platform (AIM) and had begun a gradual phase-in. With the vast majority of locations now using AIM, the agencies, as a network, voted in 2011 to require that all agencies report on a common set of outcomes measures to remain a participant in the network. Since the goal is to raise the performance of the agencies, there is a two year phase-in period to complete the implementation of the system and outcomes measure in the remaining affiliates.
Interestingly, in diagnosing the state of play at any given network, network leaders and members can often be surprised by which affiliates are able to offer leadership and guidance to their peers. The biggest aren’t always the best sources of knowledge and expertise. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) is the BBBS network center; its traditional method of supporting member agencies was organized by size. Excellence in individual affiliates was noted, but the groupings were driven by size and not capability levels. According to Cindy Mesko, BBBSA’s vice president for agency development, the organization experienced an “’Ah Ha’ moment” when they started thinking about linking agencies around levels of performance rather than just in terms of size. The data that was being gathered could be used to help in assessing the strengths and performance needs of individual agencies. This meant that some of the smaller sites with very strong track records of “long and strong matches” could play a valuable “practice leadership” role by teaching and supporting other sites on that front.
That idea was reinforced when Mesko encountered an executive director from a medium-sized, Midwestern agency at a national conference. The affiliate leader admitted she was “embarrassed about not serving more kids.” Yet as the director shared more about how the agency used data to manage is performance quality, Mesko realized that chapter’s experience could serve as a model for others in the network, and was happy to inform the affiliate leader that she wanted to learn more from her work. BBBSA’s experience is shared by many networks in our sample; getting clear on the true measures of success often surprises both network leadership and affiliates with the knowledge that for many networks, members strong on a given dimension may be flying under the radar when size alone dominates the discussion.