This section of "Preparing to Grow Your Network's Impact" shares a number of resources you may find helpful during the network improvement process:
- Key terms used throughout this planning guidance
- Review our "Questions to Consider before Diving In" to determine if this process is right for your network.
- What kinds of networks will find this useful?
- Challenges to prepare for
- How do I adapt this for a startup/newly expanding network?
- Are there networks for which this definitely would not work?
- What data will we need?
Affiliate: A local organization that does the direct work of the network—and has an affiliation with that network. Also known by other names, such as chapters or agencies.
Center: The central body for a network. The center often leads network strategy, helps drive network expansion, and provides support and/or evaluation of affiliates.
Developmental stage: Where an affiliate falls on a given dimension. The term “developmental stages” assumes affiliates can move up into new developmental stages. However, affiliates can also move down to a lower developmental stage if they fail to maintain their performance.
Dimension: The programmatic and organizational areas that have been identified as critical for mission success. Networks generally identify both programmatic and organizational dimensions. Examples include ability to effectively use data (as a program dimension) or governance or funding strength (as organizational dimensions).
Emerging: The term we use for the earliest developmental stage, of three stages (the other two are growing and high-capacity).
Five common elements: The five common elements for network improvement for which this planning guidance is designed. In this planning guidance, they are also referenced simply as the “five elements”. They are: 1) Use the network’s unified strategy to drive decision making; 2) Create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness; 3) Create paths for improvement for affiliates; 4) Diagnose where the network is today and uncover pools of strength; and 5) Capture knowledge that matters: Use diagnostic results to facilitate learning and improvement.
Growing: The term we use for the middle developmental stage, of three stages (the other two are emerging and high-capacity).
High-capacity: The term we use for the highest developmental stage of three stages (the other two are emerging and growing).
Network: The entire entity, including both affiliates and center.
The challenges in this process will vary depending on your network’s unique situation. However, some networks have identified the following as being among the most difficult parts (albeit of critical importance):
Determining the developmental stages. The specific work of agreeing on what emerging, growing, and high-capacity looks like for each programmatic or organization dimension—in a way that reflects both today’s variability across the network and aspirations for the future state of the network—is tough, but important work.
Getting good data. Many networks don’t have sophisticated data-gathering and information-sharing systems. And so many of the most valuable dimensions may be tough to measure. Ensuring that the same data has the same meaning across all affiliates also could be a challenge. Over time, as affiliates and the center align on priorities for data collection and are able to institute the necessary systems/infrastructure, gathering and sharing relevant data should become easier.
Building enthusiasm across the full network for prioritizing/acting on the knowledge gained. While the smaller group that has been engaged in the planning/instigating the process generally will support the ideas for change raised through the process, it may take extensive effort to build understanding and buy-in needed for network-wide change.
If your network is about to replicate for the first time, working with a small planning group to identify the relevant dimensions on which you want to measure affiliate performance can help you align all new affiliates around the organization’s mission, vision, and theory of change. Of course, collecting performance data, and tailoring services and supports based on that data, will be much less feasible for an organization that is new to replication. We recommend focusing your network’s service and supports, in this situation, on the startup process for new affiliates.
If your network has recently begun to expand, our advice is fairly similar. We recommend, however, that you start collecting data early. Again, it may not yet make sense to provide differentiated services and supports to affiliates, or to identify affiliate developmental stages, but your network will likely benefit from a clear definition of success and transparent sharing of data about current performance/capacity.
This process might be less valuable for coalitions and other groups where there is significant variation in mission and programming within the network affiliates. For example, general coalitions of nonprofit organizations might share only a dedication to strengthening the nonprofit sector, but might not share the same core mission and/or programmatic approach. A good way for that type of network to add value might be through general advocacy and information sharing. Even with a disparate group of affiliates, however, it can often be useful to articulate shared operational goals, and the developmental stages or milestones an affiliate should plan to achieve on the path to realizing those goals.
Many types of networks can benefit from a Five Common Elements process; we recommend looking at our "Questions to Consider before Diving In" to determine if this process is right for your network at this time.
Initially, when you’re figuring out what activities are the most important to your network in terms of generating results, it’s useful to consider the data that your network already collects. You may already collect relevant program data (for example, number of people served each year) or outcome data (for example, number of people who have successfully met the objective of a given program) or financial performance data (used for external reporting). For more information about this first round of data gathering, please see "Create paths for improvement for affiliates."
When you are starting to diagnose where your network is today (so that you can create a "baseline" to measure progress against), you’ll likely need more exhaustive data—data that links explicitly to your improvement goals. Many networks do not have this level of data readily available. You may find that you need to: engage central office staff or a contractor to gather new data or develop new gathering systems; conduct affiliate surveys and then centrally collate results; and/or have affiliates self-assess and determine their own developmental stage. For more information, please see "Diagnose where the network is today and uncover pockets of strength."