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Nonprofits

How Nonprofit Networks Are Raising the Bar on Results

Nine of the ten largest US nonprofits are networks, with multiple affiliates across the country striving for significant impact.

When people are asked to identify nonprofits, certain names jump to the foreground—the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Clubs, Habitat for Humanity. What these household names have in common, besides size and fame, is that they all work through a network structure, with multiple affiliates across the country striving for significant impact. In fact, nine of the ten largest US nonprofits are networks.

For decades, the main pressure facing networks was to be in more places and serve more people. Now, there is a different kind of pressure: to get better. Networks with multiple sites are increasingly expected to provide donors and supporters with a higher level of evidence that their work is effective and delivered consistently across the board. While an “outcomes” orientation isn’t new, its effect on the sector has been magnified, in part because of the difficult economy.

In our work, we have seen several networks take promising steps to deliver measurably better results in achieving their missions. Central offices are working collaboratively with affiliates to improve the way in which their network’s high-level strategy translates into action across the entire organization. They’re figuring out where their best work is being done, finding ways to become more effective, and learning how to ensure that all affiliates benefit from the experiences and know-how of their peers.

Here are five promising elements that networks are using to raise the bar:

Use the network’s unified strategy to drive decision-making. Although network members operate in distinct communities—serving populations or causes that may vary by geography—consensus around a common strategy keeps each site moving in the same direction. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for example, identifies key performance indicators (such as academic success measures and frequency of visits) that apply to all clubs, regardless of size, programming, and population characteristics. These measures help the organization assess individual clubs, identify the things that individual affiliates need to do to improve their results, and show where one club might benefit from the experiences of another.

Create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness. When affiliates share an understanding of what high performance looks like, it becomes easier to identify reliable indicators of effectiveness. Networks should ask themselves: What information will allow us to set clear expectations and compare results? What will help us see how all affiliates are performing against their common strategic goal and understand why some affiliates may be achieving more than others? What support is needed to transform the effectiveness of the individual organizations and the network itself?

Create paths for affiliates to improve. No basketball coach would ever tell a player to “just play more like Michael Jordan.” Professional athletes hone their skills by progressing through a series of developmental milestones. The same is true with network affiliates trying to become more effective. Once the networks we studied have developed a clear sense of the dimensions that indicate high performance, they have then shifted their focus to defining clear, intermediate developmental stages on the way to reaching those goals.

Diagnose where the network is today and uncover pockets of strength. Having figured out the developmental stages that characterize an affiliate’s progress, these networks have moved to diagnose their current state, giving themselves a baseline against which to measure progress. They ask: Where do affiliates fall on the developmental continuum? Are there pockets of strength, or weakness? How might the entire network strengthen performance if affiliates could improve in one key area?

Consider the experience of the National Guard Youth Challenge Program (ChalleNGe), which offers a quasi-military environment for teens who have dropped out of secondary school, with the aim of helping them become productive citizens. In 2010, ChalleNGe identified key dimensions of program effectiveness and assessed affiliate performance against those dimensions. If all affiliates could match the performance of the top quartile, then 2,700 more young people would graduate from the residential program each year—a 35 percent increase in impact—without needing to add new locations.

Capture knowledge that matters: After completing the tough task of assessment, networks face the challenge of leveraging affiliate knowledge to improve results across the board. This means figuring out what to do first and how affiliates can best learn from their colleagues throughout the network. Especially important may be the use of a self-evaluation tool by which affiliates can track performance indicators, understand their strengths and weakness relative to other network members, and tailor performance improvement strategies to those strengths and weaknesses.

We have seen a growing number of networks embark on a journey to drive impact in their work. A new article, “Growing Network Impact: How Nonprofit Networks are Raising the Bar on Results” shows how the work of six networks illustrates these practices. Please share your thoughts, ideas, and stories.


imageAlan Tuck, a partner in the Boston office of the Bridgespan Group, leads Bridgespan’s work with networks and is the former head of the Boston and New York offices. In addition to his work at Bridgespan, he serves on the Executive committee of the Board of Directors of the YMCA of Greater Boston.

 

 

imageMandy Taft-Pearman is a partner in Bridgespan’s Boston office and lead the work with environmental networks. Prior to joining Bridgespan, Mandy worked for the National Safe Kids Campaign, a national network focused on children’s public health.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Yves Salama

    ON September 7, 2011 10:48 AM

    Good article on how to scale best practices.  Not easy when organizations are geographically fragmented and diverse.  To develop the social media ‘conversation’ across the network, we use the Community of Practice model by providing a (online) place to learn, a place to practice and a place to share.

  • BY Elizabeth Kronoff, Insaan Group

    ON September 8, 2011 01:01 PM

    Thanks. This article is a great reminder of how we can best use networks for results. I agree with Yves and I would like to ask what platform you are using to realize the community of practice model? Have you made your own or are you using existing networks like Facebook?

  • BY Yonatan Glaser, B'Tzedek

    ON September 8, 2011 02:08 PM

    Fascinating. I’d like to understand more about these networks as an organizational structure; how is it different to a franchise model or an organization with branches, etc. Can anyone point to on-line (ideally ssireview) articles that explore questions such as - is this, conceptually, like a cooperative of distinct NGO’s? A franchise? A head office with various stores in different communities? What are the roles, division of labor, authority and autonomy of each network member. What are the entry methods to the network? How is collaboration and/or competition created/channeled? How does money flow within the network, if at all, for what purpose and with what limitations? I am most interested and appreciate any help offered.

  • BY Tracy Fredericks

    ON September 8, 2011 02:29 PM

    Yonatan, I am not sure if it is very different from organizations with branches. I usually refer to them as a national or international organization with chapters.  I agree with the points made but would also add that these types of organizations face several challenges. Some are one 501c3 and others have their own separate status. If they are all one status it is easier to control the output and what that local chapter does. If not, you can and do have challenges based on programs and measurement and how you can compare them on a national or international basis. I have worked for several of these types of organizations and it takes a great deal of skill, passion and luck to keep all of the entities on the same page at the same. time

    Alan and Mandy, great article. Thank you.

  • BY Yonatan Glaser, B'Tzedek

    ON September 8, 2011 02:51 PM

    Thank you very much; remarkable that you are following this.

  • anne chamberlain - the benevolent society-Sydney A's avatar

    BY anne chamberlain - the benevolent society-Sydney A

    ON September 8, 2011 04:59 PM

    Hi all, this figure of : “2,700 more young people would graduate from the residential program each year” is not an outcome its an output - an outcome would be more like behaviour change in these young people.  The idea of networks of practice is great - how could this work where the organisations involved might be in competition with each other for donor or govt funding?

  • BY Ira Silver, Professor of Sociology, Framingham Sta

    ON September 9, 2011 07:54 AM

    This is great news given how important it is for those who give to see results.  Individuals and foundations these days see their gifts as investments in the future.  As the U.S. confronts its jobs crisis, the growing emphasis within the nonprofit sector on results will be especially important for organizations striving to develop young talent for decent-paying employment.  It remains to be seen whether President Obama’s new jobs initiatives will pass muster with Congress.  What we do know for sure, however, is that private investment in creating greater opportunity is an idea that fuels consensus across the political aisle.  For more about the many ways we can invest in solutions to American inequality, please visit my blog, Opportunity for All: http://www.oppforall.com

  • mary.mcclure's avatar

    BY mary.mcclure

    ON September 9, 2011 08:08 AM

    “A new article, “Growing Network Impact: How Nonprofit Networks are Raising the Bar on Results” shows how the work of six networks illustrates these practices. “

    Is this article available online?  I would like to learn more about the six networks mentioned in this sentence.

  • Mandy Taft-Pearman, The Bridgespan Group's avatar

    BY Mandy Taft-Pearman, The Bridgespan Group

    ON September 9, 2011 08:22 AM

    Thanks, all, for the great comments and questions.

    Yonatan and Tracy, we too have grappled with the question of organization structure and the range of network types out there.  We’ve recently developed a taxonomy that we find helps distinguish between different types of networks.  As is suggested above, there are different pros and cons associated with each of these types.  The taxonomy can be accessed in two places:

    1. In our full Growing Network Impact article (available for download at: http://www.bridgespan.org/growing-network-impact.aspx). [Mary, this also answers your question about where the full article is available.]

    2. In the online planning guide we’ve developed to support organizations who would like to implement a similar approach to what’s laid out in the article (available at: http://www.bridgespan.org/preparing-to-grow-network-impact.aspx).

    Anne, your comment about outputs versus outcomes is absolutely correct.  Increasing the number of students who graduate from a given program is an output, not an outcome.  In the case of the organization cited here, it was known that a range of positive outcomes were associated with this particular output (completion of the program).  However, many organizations rely exclusively on output data, without a good sense of whether a given output leads to positive outcomes.  The approach laid out in our article very much relies on organizations driving for clarity on which programmatic and organizational practices actually drive outcomes, not just outputs.

    Finally, in terms of organizations that may be competing for resources.  While elements of this approach certainly would need to be adapted, there are circumstances in which it could be beneficial.  For example, accreditation could be one way to think about this.  Having a group of organizations agree on common standards can potentially help drive more resources to the field overall by helping funders a) better understand what actually drives results, b) identify high potential opportunities for investment, and c) more readily identify high performers within the field.

  • BY Danielle Yates

    ON September 9, 2011 12:57 PM

    Alan and Mandy,

    Thank you for sharing these important lessons and ideas with the field. Given the scale and complexity of the challenges we face, it is clear that no individual organization or sector — whether government, corporate or philanthropy — has the resources and reach required to address our society’s most pressing and intractable problems.  Many grantmakers and nonprofits are recognizing the value of working in ways that are more connected, coordinated and col¬laborative. For that reason, GEO and Monitor Institute have teamed up to release a funder’s guide next month, called Catalyzing Networks for Social Change, and host a grantmaker convening on Growing Social Impact in a Networked World. The guide and convening explore how funders can help catalyze multi-stakeholder networks — both formal and informal — for social change. We believe that networks are critical to making progress on complex problems and to achieve significant, measurable results. Through this ongoing dialogue, our grantmaking community is exploring ways to catalyze and evaluate the impact of networks, understand their growth cycles and foster network health along key dimensions. For more information visit http://www.geofunders.org

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