Using a Nonprofit Network to Increase Social Impact

If 1 not-for-profit organization can influence change, imagine what 10 could do if they all came together to work towards a common goal. In this episode of the Strategic Nonprofit Podcast, host Trista sits down with DrMichelle Shumate to discuss the intricacies of not-for-profit networks and why designing and leading an effective NPO network will ultimately help your organization’s social impact.

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What’s a Not-For-Profit Network?

A nonprofit network is a strategic approach to ensuring that organizations serve their communities more effectively. Like a commercial or business network, like-minded organizations provide one another with advice and emerging information to build effective relationships that ultimately help each other accomplish their goals.

Substantial social impact can only be achieved if nonprofits turn to the power of networking. Organizations that extend themselves to similar organizations to create an impact network are some of the most effective nonprofits to exist. That’s because joining forces with like-minded people is essential to building a strong network. These nonprofit networks offer an opportunity for organizations to connect with others in the industry to share advice and insights.

Working together as a network is a powerful way to move the needle on social issues.

Dr. Michelle Shumate

Why does having a “design mindset” lend to creating a successful NPO network?

While there’s a power in putting people together in a room with the focus of achieving a common goal, many NPOs expect the design and actual outcomes to happen spontaneously. However, to create an effective NPO network – or even a nonprofit organization itself for that matter, you need to think about all of the choices you’ll have to make for your network to function. That’s why starting collaborations with a design mindset leads to a better outcome overall for networks and NPOs alike.

“Effective nonprofit networks don’t just happen, they have to be planned and designed”

Dr. Michelle Shumate

Is creating an effective NPO network always a great solution?

It depends. While most non-profits practically collaborate by default, the problem with an NPO network is that it takes a lot of time and a lot of resources to do and takes a long time to set up well. The research behind this says that you’re talking three to five years from the time of inception until your NPO network will begin to make a social impact.

Nonprofits almost collaborate by default; it’s become part of the mindset.

Dr. Michelle Shumate

Therefore, if your problem is a fast-changing one – you don’t have three to five years to wait around and build a network. Instead, it would be best if you were responsive to the problem. However, suppose you’re tackling a problem with many unknowns. In that case, it may be more suitable to work extensively and collaboratively with other organizations. Overall, Michelle recommends the following four things that an NPO network can do that an organization can’t do alone:

1. NPO networks help to catalyze internal learning and development

There is something special about being able to learn in a network because you can look around at the data and figure out what other organizations are doing that you haven’t even thought of yet and that might make a bigger social impact.

2. NPO networks help advocacy work

 Advocacy work sometimes is better in a coalition because there are multiple voices who can reach different stakeholders and they can really enable them to amplify their message.

3. NPO networks encourage Systems Alignment

Systems alignment allows us to think about really complex problems. It’s about aligning existing efforts and helping put everybody on the same page when it comes to what works best.

4. NPO networks help to diffuse a great best practice

What does it mean to diffuse a great best practice? When an organization has an idea, they find out it works. Once they’ve got the evidence to back it, they know the only way they’re going to scale their social impact is by bringing in more organizations and communities to adopt it. As a result, they can create networks of organizations across communities to diffuse the practice to different groups.

Final word: Is Program Evaluation the next step of NPO network evaluation?

Michelle recommends nonprofits view the next generation of excellent program evaluation as network program evaluation. Organizations should focus on looking at one another’s similar programs and compare data to one another to collectively improve and impact the cause.

About Michelle Shumate

Michelle Shumate is the founding director of Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact (NNSI). NNSI is a research lab dedicated to answering the question: “How can nonprofit networks be rewired for maximum social impact?” In addition, Michelle is a Professor in Communication Studies and Associate Faculty at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on designing inter-organizational networks to make the most social impact.

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