Network Your Philanthropy: Dynamic Relationships are the Future of Philanthropy


Magazine article

Network your Philanthropy Dynamic Relationships are the Future of Philanthropy

by Kimberly Manno Reott


The world is asking more of philanthropists and their institutions. Today’s grantees are demanding more than a cheque and traditional expert, PhD-level advice. Beneficiary communities want to be active, not passive, in creating their own solutions. On-the-ground innovators are asking to learn what is working in other environments. In other words, the social change ecosystem is asking for the connections – the relationships – to deepen and scale their impact. It is time for philanthropy to catch up to the changing context – and to give the social change world what it is asking for: human networks.

Human networks are the organisational strategy of the future. A human network is a dynamic set of relationships, united by a shared purpose and committed to a common goal. The people in a network share specific characteristics such as geography, interests, experiences, and/or careers and are hyper-connected to each other and the world around them. High-functioning human networks have a clear value proposition for their members and clear rewards for participation. To be clear, a human network is not a CRM system, an Excel spreadsheet, or a database. It is a living, breathing organism that requires intention and attention. When nurtured, a human network far exceeds the potential of an individual or organization to achieve a particular goal.

Philanthropists and their institutions must build the dynamic relationships that form high-functioning human networks. This means shifting from exclusivity to inclusivity, from individual experts to expansive networks of relationships. Rather than looking for the needle in the haystack, philanthropy in the future will fully embrace the power of human networks to recombine ideas to achieve social change. 


Where to start

Networked organisations listen more than they talk. And they listen in unlikely places, to unlikely experts. In fact, networked organisations think about the concept of experts in a broader way than our traditional societal framework for expertise would suggest. For a philanthropist or philanthropic organisation operating as a networked organisation, experts exist at all levels and might include beneficiaries, investees/grantees, partners, and/or employees because they all offer hands-on experience, data, and relationships. To be truly networked, rather than pushing information out to them, your organisation needs to be pulling information in through listening.

Here’s a powerful example. In 2011 the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation came to Context Partners wanting to publicly celebrate local Black men who were positively shaping their city’s future. Rather than assemble a group of traditional PhD experts in urban issues, we listened to the local community. How? We immersed ourselves in their target cities, Philadelphia and Detroit, by going where they gathered: church picnics, fraternal organizations, and NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) meetings. Our listening uncovered a critical insight: exemplary Black males did not always self-identify as leaders of the communities in which they lived and served.

So instead of a traditional grant application, we encouraged these men to share their stories and connect and celebrate with each other. The Black Male engagement (BMe) network was born. Through the power of this living, breathing network, men from all walks of life are coming together to re-energize their communities and inspire businesses, nonprofits, and even governors to take an active role in supporting their work.         

The result? Since its launch, BMe has funded the projects of 70 men, called BMe Leaders, and has provided services to more than 10,000 people. BMe has expanded to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, has plans to expand across cities in the U.S. in 2014, and has secured an additional $3.6 million in future funding.

Bottom line: this non-traditional approach to philanthropy – listening – had the Knight Foundation turning to the community itself rather than outside PhD’s and technical experts, to co-design a network from the ground up.


How to get networked: Three shifts you can make this year

In our experience working with more than 20 different philanthropic groups, it takes three critical shifts to become more networked:

SHIFT 1 Spark the fire

Healthy competition creates an excitement and energy that can spark your network to action. One of the most effective ways to jump-start a network is to launch a crowdsourcing innovation prize challenge. A well-designed prize challenge allows a philanthropist to simultaneously identify new solutions in a particular topic area as well as, even more importantly, to identify and engage with new solution-providers to create an intelligence network.

The Rockefeller Foundation has used prize challenges as a way to discover new approaches to solving tough social problems and to jump-start its network of social innovators around the world. In the spring of 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a global challenge to source new ideas across three topics: youth in farming, irrigation technologies, and data use in urban centers. In just seven weeks, the challenge garnered 1,763 ideas from 112 countries on six continents, with most of the entries coming from the global south and from people new to the Foundation. Building on 2012’s success, the Foundation ran a second challenge in 2013 to source innovations that support people working in the informal economy. This prize generated 2,226 new ideas, over 80% of them from people who learned about the prize through personal and professional relationships. In total, these two challenges resulted in more than 20 new grants, generated thousands of new Twitter followers and hundreds of tools/resources shared by the network, and dramatically increased the Foundation’s overall audience amongst on-the-ground innovators.

SHIFT 2 Give to receive

The key to building a high-performing network is tailored rewards. People are busy. Organisations have competing priorities and are juggling different stakeholders. Your organisation might have to overcome past perceptions about its being unapproachable or uninterested in listening. It is only through a strong reward system that you can encourage a new kind of relationship with your network. In other words, you have to give your network something in order to receive the benefits.

Rewards come in all shapes and sizes. For example, the BMW Foundation in Munich has developed a set of interlocking reputational and experiential rewards for participating in its network. One of the BMW Foundation’s core initiatives is its Responsible Leadership network, a global group of dynamic young leaders who are committed to social change. This 1,600-plus member network is fueled by a series of youth forums held annually in multiple locations around the world. Alumni of previous forums invite new youth to attend each year. The Foundation has also established the Responsible Leaders Awards to further motivate participation in the network. Awardees can profile their stories on the Foundation’s website, are invited to unique Responsible Leader events, and receive both financial and in-kind support from the Foundation and the Foundation’s networks. Through these efforts, the BMW Foundation leverages its staff of 20-plus into an organisation of thousands.

SHIFT 3 Tool up

Once you have been interacting with your network, you will begin to see patterns. You will notice how your members want to connect with you and each other. From there you can begin to create the tools for sustained activation of your network.

A tool currently under construction is the Resilience Platform, an online platform for scaling solutions for social change. An international coalition of partners including Ecotrust, Context Partners, the Grameen Foundation, Mercy Corps, and The Rockefeller Foundation came together to understand how they could better act collectively on behalf of people and the planet. What they learned as they listened inside their organisations was that they each had a wealth of proven solutions, but they had no process – no tool – for documenting, sharing, and transferring these solutions to new contexts. Together, as a network, the coalition is co-designing an online tool to distill complex social solutions into shareable building blocks that span various contexts.

While online tools can be impressive, something as simple as an on-boarding kit allowing new members to understand their roles and responsibilities has proven successful at the Nike Foundation. A unifying twitter hashtag, member-led Google-hangouts, a LinkedIn discussion group… the possibilities for your toolbox are endless and should be tailored to your network’s needs, habits, and interests.


In conclusion

The world is changing fast. To stay effective and relevant, philanthropists need to change with it. This means shifting your role from finding the next big idea to facilitating the connections between people. Philanthropists must evolve from cheque-writer to network-facilitator, from content-generator to curator. Facilitation means listening to your networks. It means creating the space for your grantees, your beneficiaries, and your partners to collaborate and build dynamic relationships. Networked philanthropy facilitates more, controls less. Release your white-knuckle grip on expert knowledge and free your communities to innovate.


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