Adapting a network’s theory of change
by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.
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After a short August break, we kicked off our first Community Conversation of the fall on September 22nd, 2021 with Carri Munn from Context for Action and Amelia Pape from Converge. Carri and Amelia shared their experiences collaborating with network teams to adapt Converge’s theory of change to their networks and the process and successes of co-creating a shared theory of change with network leaders.
Highlights from the conversation
Complex problems are by nature nonlinear and typically must be addressed from many angles at once. This is why networks, in their ability to connect and facilitate collective action between people and organizations, can be successful and impactful in creating system change in complex environments. As defined by our co-hosts, a theory of change describes how a network can create systemic change by harnessing the interdependence of the network system – its members.
The way networks create system change – or their theory of change — can often emerge in phases. The conversation outlined these phases, beginning with connecting the actors within the network system, working towards building trusting relationships and an understanding of members’ contexts. This is the foundation necessary to reach the coordination phase, when regular communication and coordination starts to occur between people within the network, people are supporting the work and each other, silos are starting to break down, and information, value, and learnings begin to flow from the connections that have been created. From here, the collaboration phase emerges and members begin to recognize a shared purpose within the larger system and opportunities to collaborate within it. It is these emergent collaborations that begin to create and perpetuate more and new collaborations and, eventually, system change and impact at scale.
This phased framework is a way to talk broadly about a network’s theory of change. However, network leaders often need a specific and contextual theory of change to effectively communicate to and strengthen the network. Our co-hosts shared an example of using this framework to support a network interested in transforming a broad theory of change to one that represented their network’s specific activities, as a means to communicate and collaborate more effectively with its members and stakeholders.
Using the phased theory of change framework — connection, coordination, and collaboration — our co-hosts described their process, which started with using surveys and conversations to gather information from the network about the challenges, barriers, and opportunities that existed within the network system in its current state, and to describe the optimal system impact, or the realized vision, they hoped to achieve. These became inputs for a virtual Mural storyboard session where they facilitated a smaller group of network participants to articulate what they hoped to create and achieve in each phase and how they viewed their roles and relationships within these phases. The storyboarding exercise was a way to help the network articulate how they would create the conditions for impact and collaboration to emerge that would be considered those of a healthy network and then use those outcomes as a tool to communicate with and bond the network.
What also emerged from this conversation was the critical role of network coordinators in theory of change processes. Coordinators are often the catalyst in orienting networks to see the bigger picture. As facilitators of a complex system, it often falls to them both, by necessity and design, to engage members in conversations about how they see themselves as part of a larger whole and how to contribute to transformational change in the network system.
Miss the session? View the recording here.
Thanks again to our co-hosts, Carri Munn and Amelia Pape!
Have your own experiences developing a theory of change? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Join us for the next Community Conversation!
Or email Seema at firstname.lastname@example.org to co-host an upcoming session with us.