Collective Mind Community Conversations

Decentralizing networks to increase member engagement

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.

The Community Conversation on December 9th, 2020 was co-hosted by Richard Ombono, Senior Program Manager for Child Helpline International. Child Helpline brings together 168 organizations in 139 countries with the common agenda of strengthening child protection systems and amplifying the voices of children. The network coordinates knowledge and viewpoints that enable advocacy, influence, and change in attitudes, policies, and practices on a national, regional, and global levels.

Richard brought his rich experiences as both a regional network practitioner and most recently, as a global network manager, to the discussion. These vantage points provided valuable perspectives towards understanding the opportunities and challenges of structuring a decentralized network and putting processes in place to ensure dispersed leadership and increased engagement.

Highlights from the conversation

The inherently fluid and informal nature of networks is one that lends itself to an organizational structure in which responsibility for leading the network is not only distributed across members but where those leaders work together to design structures and processes to manage network activities and decision-making. The guiding principle of a decentralized network is one that removes the organizational hierarchy and prioritizes cultivating interpersonal relationships and collaboration to achieve the network’s shared purpose and broaden its impact.

What does this mean in practice? As our Community Conversation host, Richard highlighted, “members are the boss”. For a decentralized network to be successful, many people, dispersed across the membership, must be empowered to take on the range of roles that are required to lead and manage a network. This transitions leadership from being thought of as a singular role to multiple network leaders undertaking activities to work across members and stakeholders to align views, needs, and goals. Cultivating collaboration and engagement with, amongst, and between members is not only the foundation for network impact but necessary to build the structures and processes that enable those leaders to design and manage activities that benefit the entire network.

As we heard in this and other conversations with network practitioners, aligning member views and objectives can be challenging in an inherently dispersed network structure, with members operating at local, country, and regional levels with objectives that may vary. The diversity of a network’s membership is both what creates value and also what makes managing a network complex. Part of network leadership is embracing and facilitating the complexity and finding ways to encompass the perspectives of members at all levels by employing a variety of ways for member voices to be heard, feedback to be channeled and integrated, and putting into place structures and processes designed specifically for dispersed decision-making.

As highlighted by one of the conversation participants, network managers can employ feedback principles such as consensus-building when trying to align member views, providing room for disagreement while facilitating towards a decision that members can collectively “live with” and that allows for network tasks and initiatives to move forward. In another example described by our co-host Richard, a Board can be created composed of experts and regional representatives nominated by the members to serve as a mechanism through which member feedback is collected, ideas prioritized and approved, and brought to a general assembly meeting for membership endorsement, thereby involving the members at both the beginning and end of the process. The key to any of these is to design the structures and processes with the network — its specific shared purpose and membership — in mind.

A decentralized network model also means intentionally and structurally building and maintaining a network culture focused on collaboration. This culture should be integrated into leadership approaches and the structures and processes that the leaders design and manage. In some cases, network culture can be cultivated through what one conversation participant referred to as a “center of gravity” — something that brings the members together to allow them to build relationships and foster identity and cohesion, complementary to the shared purpose. It could be, for example, an in-person meeting or gathering of network members or a collective network campaign. This idea of finding new ways to bring members together has emerged as a common theme in the current environment where in-person gatherings are limited and network members and stakeholders may have felt disconnected.

Finally, there is no one way of organizing a network and numerous considerations should be weighed such as geographic coverage, language, culture, member strengths and weaknesses, etc. What works to structure Network “A” might not work for Network “B”. But a thoughtful and intentional decentralized approach has the potential to bridge misaligned goals while fostering connections where they may be weak and building them up where they may be strong. Distributing leadership, ownership, and decision-making can make a network more resilient, drive its work forward, and broaden its impact while also building trust in the network — between and amongst leaders and members.

Additional resources

Miss the session? View the recording here and check out the resources referenced during the session:

Thanks again to our co-host, Richard Ombono, for sharing his experience!

Get involved

Have your own experiences with network decentralization? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Join us for the next Community Conversation!

Or email Seema at seema@collectivemindglobal.org to co-host an upcoming session with us.

We believe in the power of networks to foster collective action and create change. Join us at https://www.collectivemindglobal.org