by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Networks in Action sessions to unpack critical network concepts with our global learning community. Each session focuses on a specific network concept and through a series of facilitated reflection exercises, builds out the concept by crowdsourcing ideas and experiences.
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In December 2022, Collective Mind hosted our Networks in Action on network operations. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, built from inputs shared by event registrants and followed the frame of “what”, “so what”, “now what”. The ideas shared here are a summary of the participants’ inputs and discussion.
What?: Defining network operations
Participants shared perspectives and experiences around operations within their network contexts. Overall, operations were viewed as the elements of the network that help it to effectively function. At a more granular level, network operations have many different aspects and parameters.
Network operations include the systems and processes that enable it to serve its members. These include the foundational mechanisms and systems that a network should have in place to enable it to run, such as financial management, IT and digital infrastructure, legal infrastructure, communications, knowledge management, human resources, fundraising/donor management, convening support, financial management, and other similar operational functions. How any of these operational aspects are structured and fulfilled varies from network to network, but for them to be fit-for-purpose, they must be responsive to the needs of the network’s membership and backbone leadership.
So what?: What operational challenges do you struggle with?
Participants were asked to share their top three most challenging operational struggles. The top challenges were related to supporting the network and its members. Knowledge management was at the forefront of what most participants struggled with as were communications and digital infrastructure. Each topic is challenging individually and the experiences shared by participants demonstrated how they are also interconnected. Getting information and knowledge from one part of the network to another, especially when accounting for the geographic and cultural diversity of networks, requires thoughtful, conscientious, and strategic communications and adaptable digital infrastructure.
The challenges identified by the least number of individuals were generally related to the organizational setup and managing or sustaining of the network, including operational aspects such as financial management, grants/contract management, and donor management/fundraising. During the discussion, participants observed that the responses and prioritization of issues were likely highly dependent on where individuals are positioned within the network and how their networks are set up. For example, a participant whose daily functions don’t directly deal with fundraising may not view donor management as a top challenge. Similarly, a mostly volunteer-led network may have struggles that are very different than a network with paid staff. What is viewed as challenging is very much dependent on the vantage point and perspective within the network.
Now what?: How do you currently meet your operational challenges?
Participants shared many different approaches to addressing their operational challenges, but the common theme across them was that challenges cannot be addressed in a silo. For example, challenges around fundraising could be potentially eased through joint fundraising initiatives. Similarly, responsibilities around meetings and convenings can be distributed across network members. Participants also mentioned the need to seek out people within the network that have the capabilities and capacity to share in the responsibility. Across all of this was an emphasis on the necessity to complement any solution with better communication and communication tools, for example, setting regular, fixed-time meetings, distributing newsletters, setting up robust knowledge-sharing systems and practices, or testing the feasibility of instantaneous communication platforms such as Slack.
Highlights from the conversation
This synthesis above was the basis for reflection and discussion during the session which raised additional thoughts and ideas.
The question of where capacity lies within the network to meet operational needs, where it doesn’t, and how can those needs can be met, was raised. This spurred a discussion around “hosting” — what it is, what it could look like, and how it could fill the gaps in operational capacities. Hosting is essentially when another organization steps in to be a type of backbone, sponsor, or operational home to the network, specifically to provide the support systems and structures that can free up the network to do its programmatic work. This can take the form of a fiscal sponsorship arrangement, a nested network setup, or a situation where there are multiple host organizations taking on the responsibility of the network’s different operational needs by, for example, channeling funds and hiring staff on behalf of the network. These types of configurations could be particularly advantageous for volunteer-run networks, smaller networks, or those without legal entity status, any of which may not have the need for robust administrative and operational functions to start. A major benefit of having a host is their ability to receive and channel funding, hire operational staff, or have systems already set up that the network can tap into. At the same time, hosting setups can have implications related to power and accountability.
Regardless of a network’s size, stage, or existing level of infrastructure, operational considerations are critical. Having systems, processes, and structures to fulfill a network’s operational functions is essential to helping members and the network’s backbone leadership to be effective and efficient and enable the network to be supported and impactful.
Miss the session? View the recording here.