Collective Mind Community Conversation
Regional perspectives on network development and coordination
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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On October 20th, Collective Mind hosted a special Community Conversation about network development, coordination, and membership engagement. The unique session brought together a panel of experts from 3 different regions and network backgrounds — advocacy networks in Africa, humanitarian coordination in the Middle East, and inter-faith networks in Latin America and the Caribbean. The panel included Donita Mosati, membership engagement and support lead at Tax Justice Network Africa, Myriam Marcuello, former technical coordinator of the West Bank Protection Consortium in the occupied Palestinian territory, and Silvia Mazzarrelli, regional coordinator of the Global Network of Religions for Children in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Each panelist shared their distinct perspectives, challenges, and insights on network development, coordination, and membership engagement. Their collective experiences highlighted not only how interconnected these elements are, but how different networks evolve and the factors that influence network development.
Highlights from the conversation
Networks grow and evolve in many ways, often going through multiple phases of growth and involving the iteration of several processes. Growth often comes with challenges, especially with complex, multi-actor systems such as networks. The network’s original shared purpose and goals can often become obscured, adversely affecting the development and sustainability of the network. Donita shared her experience of undertaking an internal review process with a network in its 15th year and at the outset of a new strategic phase. The review process revealed a critical insight — that the network lacked the fundamental structures and strategy to support its ambitious mission.
An important overall learning from this experience was that networks are often not intentional about the developmental activities and processes involved in designing a sustainable network for long-term impact, especially in their formative stages. If ensuring the effectiveness and longevity of the network are primary goals, being clear about the design of the network — the organizational structure and membership attributes that provide coherence to the network — from the beginning is key, while also viewing the network as a ‘work in progress’ throughout its lifespan. Undertaking critical review processes is one way to approach this, whether at an early stage of network development or well into the later years of a network’s lifespan. These types of processes can and should prompt the network to ask difficult but necessary questions around its elemental aspects. Some of these questions include what the structures and dynamics are that influence the optimum functionality of the network, how to define the operational style and collective value-creation of activities, and how to decide on the formal and informal aspects of the network.
In Myriam’s experience, the inception and evolution of her network were driven by the context and needs of the complex problems they were trying to solve, specifically the flexibility and coordination required to respond in humanitarian and emergency settings. Setting up an integrated, multi-sector, coordinated system — in this case, a consortium of humanitarian INGOs — was a way to overcome the challenges such as bureaucracy, a top-down hierarchy, limited participation by local actors, and a constrained ability to establish true partnerships that put different actors on equal footing. Organizing through a consortium provides the capacity to coordinate actions between different actors in ways that are more comprehensive, effective, rapid, and powerful, while also sharing ownership of the risks and responsibilities. It allows complementary actors to pool their capacity, resources, and knowledge, enabling more comprehensive assistance to displaced and vulnerable populations. It also allows for greater geographic coverage, a much stronger advocacy voice, more leverage to financial resources, and access to multi-year funding.
Similar to Donita’s experience, a key learning from a review of the consortium was that the setup and structure of any network are not fixed but rather must evolve according to the changing context and related needs. Another key lesson was that any decisions to change the structure of the system must be undertaken using sound analysis and evidence, not based in power struggles. Additionally, to mitigate and minimize tensions among members, it can be helpful to establish clear roles and responsibilities that limit duplication or overlap between them. Throughout all of this, the spirit and culture of the consortium cannot be neglected. This means nurturing what it means to work together, how to communicate, what kind of values should be promoted, and what is unacceptable in terms of attitudes and behaviors.
Silvia’s experience also emphasized the significance of culture and spirit in a network setting. In the case of the global intercultural and interfaith community that comprises her network, intentionally nurturing spirituality has been a catalyst for deeper, more meaningful member engagement. It helps build a sense of interconnectedness, which is fundamental to every network, not just interfaith settings. Network coordinators can act as catalysts by creating and facilitating moments to foster this type of interdependence and nurture members’ sense of commonality — in this case, spirituality — intentionally building it into the collective value system of the network.
In contexts such as these, challenges around member engagement persist. The diversity of the network’s composition is both an asset, in that it is inclusive, and a challenge, due to the multitude and types of voices that need to be represented. It becomes important to look for and create structures and spaces to integrate these voices. It’s also important to create spaces for participation and leaders to emerge, but again, challenging in settings where leadership and authority are culturally and religiously complex.
What is clear across all three panelist’s experiences is that networks are not homogenous. Context, topic, geography, and network culture all matter and play significant roles in influencing and shaping the design, development, and evolution of a network.
Miss the session? View the recording here.
Thanks again to our amazing panelists!
Have your own experiences with regional network development? Tell us about it in the comments below.
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Or email Seema at firstname.lastname@example.org to co-host an upcoming session with us.