Form follows function follows shared purpose: Network functions and backbone roles

5 min readNov 20, 2019

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We’ve already established that networks are a unique organizational type, unlike the traditional, hierarchical organizations we find in business or in the NGO/nonprofit world. But what functions do networks serve?

What are network functions?

Part of answering the question of network functions requires us to understand why we need to work together to achieve the shared purpose of the network in the first place. (We defined shared purpose in an earlier blog as “the visionary goal around which strategies are defined, people are mobilized, and activities are established and harmonized”). It’s worth remembering that we ended up with a network to solve the complex problem at hand because no individual or single organization had the mandate, capacity, knowledge, or other requisite resources to do so alone.

Relatedly, answering this question of network functions requires us to understand what’s different about networks compared to more traditional organizations that were inadequately matched to the challenges of addressing the complex problem at the core of the network’s shared purpose. Instead of a centralized, hierarchical organization with linear chains of command, we have a network — distributed, decentralized, flexible, and adaptive, wherein value is fostered through ties and relationships. As such, we need to leverage the richness within our networks — which is where network functions come in.

What functions leverage our combined strengths and resources to create something greater than the sum of the parts?

There are many network functions but they all relate to linking, connecting, synergizing, and integrating across the network. The range of network functions includes:

· Information sharing, filtering, amplification, and diffusion

· Knowledge generation, exchange, and management

· Problem solving and innovation (i.e. improving response to complex issues or solving problems where solutions are possible for, with, and across members and beyond)

· Service delivery coordination

· Advocacy and policy influence

· Learning and capacity building (to make members and others working on the shared purpose more efficient and effective, including the network itself)

· Community building (i.e. promoting norms and standards of the network with network members, fostering connections, building relationships)

· Thought leadership and field-building

· Investing (i.e. providing resources to members or others)

Each function is collective of the network’s members, and perhaps beyond to other stakeholders, actors, or beneficiaries. All of these functions seek to capture the combined value that lies within the network and, ideally, create value that is more than the sum of those combined parts.

From the range of potential functions, the specific functions that a given network may seek to fulfill will depend on the shared purpose of that network. Networks will also usually undertake multiple functions, though some may be primary functions and others may be secondary. Whatever the functions are of a given network, they should capture the unique value of the network organizational type and of that network specifically based on the resources and strengths it embodies.

Form follows function…

While shared purpose defines network functions, those functions define network structures and processes for how members are organized and engaged and how activities are defined and managed. Any given network will create its own unique structures and processes for achieving its functions. Network functions may be achieved through specific parts of the network’s structure, such as through a working group that focuses on advocacy or a small grant fund to catalyze innovation, or across all of them, such as via knowledge-management activities that crosscut network activities. Functions — and thereby structures and processes — may also shift over time to meet the evolving needs of the network and its members.

Achieving network functions will at the same time require achieving some more traditional organizational functions that enable those network functions. These organizational functions — which similarly underpin structures and processes — may include communications, resource mobilization, governance, and measuring and monitoring. They may also include central operational functions like finance, administration, HR, and IT.

What role does the backbone play in achieving network functions?

The backbone (or dedicated staff or volunteers who orchestrate the network) manages and coordinates the structures and processes through which the network’s goals are achieved. This means that the backbone generally a) manages the majority of the enabling organizational functions and b) coordinates and facilitates the network functions.

Coordination and facilitation are the core tasks of a network backbone because shared purpose and membership are the heart of the network. Coordination and facilitation are how the networks’ goals are achieved through:

· collective activities that are joint and/or joined up across member efforts

· ongoing efforts to guide vision and strategy (i.e. building a common understanding of the problem, creating interactions that generate shared understanding and vision, ensuring the common agenda is updated as needed as strategies unfold, etc.)

· system organizing that brings together the range of diverse stakeholders relevant to the complex problem in order to generate coherence in strategies

· community building within the membership and beyond

Coordination and facilitation happen both internally to the network with members and externally with other actors and stakeholders. It is through effective coordination and facilitation that backbones manage accountability, legitimacy, conflict, and commitment within the network.

Ensuring both network and organizational functions means that backbone staff will have both formal positions and will take on any number of network roles. Just as there’s a difference between network and organizational functions, there’s a difference between backbone roles, which are fluid to achieve network functions, and backbone positions, which are delineated by formal job descriptions and titles. Network roles are those that ensure coordination and facilitation; positions ensure completion of organizational functions. Positions can include responsibilities for communications, finance, fundraising, event planning, IT, or HR. At the same time, all backbone staff will play a range of roles within their positions based on the network’s functions, fluidly serving as a facilitator and coordinator as well as a broker, catalyst, convener, and more.

Thanks for reading! Get in touch to share your thoughts, ideas, and feedback with me at

For this edition, we looked at the following sources:

A Manager’s Guide to Choosing and Using Collaborative Networks

Collective Impact Backbone Starter Guide

Designing Effective Knowledge Networks

Global Action Networks

Inter-Organizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Inform Practice

Strengthening Humanitarian Networks

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World




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