The Collective Mind Community Blog
Setting a Place at the Network Table: Know Your Utensils
by Evan Welkin
Evan Welkin is a community organizer and networks consultant with a passion for social and environmental justice. Beginning as a youth and community development coalition program manager in 2008, he transitioned in 2017 to primarily consulting and advising online for grassroots international network initiatives such as the Global Ecovillage Network, the Artists at Risk Connection, and ECOLISE. Today he’s piloting a folk school, ecovillage, and agricultural research hub called Borgo Basino in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, and can be reached at evanwelkin.com or @Ewelkin on Twitter.
At this moment when we are distancing from each other, missing friends and family, or perhaps even longing to meet with our colleagues face to face, there’s no better time to consider the quality of our connections. What will change in global networking in a post-COVID world? As a consultant primarily working with global networks online, I’m particularly motivated to consider some familiar tools as we engage with international network collaboration in this new landscape. At the same time, since I mostly work with nonprofit networks I see a particular real need to differentiate key characteristics of emerging networks from older nonprofit organizational norms to illustrate their similarities and differences. As I think about what we’re missing, right now and in the greater picture of networking, I propose the image of sitting down to a meal together as our starting point.
Consider a place setting at our collective table: a fork, a spoon, a knife. Let’s use the standard set of cutlery as one way of imagining networks. What makes each utensil useful? What are their primary functions together? If the meal set before us represents the issues we’d like to tackle, the resources we’d like to share, the potential of our individual realities all cooked together, maybe it’s worth taking another look at the tools we have before us? I’m sure many of us have experienced the feeling of sitting down to a fancy meal and finding unfamiliar silverware, but I contend we’ve forgotten the utility of our most basic tools. So let’s look at them again:
The fork represents our most classic notion of what networks offer. It binds together manageable pieces of disparate parts and delivers them where they need to go. A single bite could represent different flavors of organizational style, funding sustainability, or even amount of commitment, but it’s the fork that puts the pieces together for a purpose. Established networks with lots of infrastructure, like ones that have their own mission and vision, paid secretariat and long term strategic plans, are very fork-oriented as they devote their resources to being the connecting tool. With staff, administrative capacity, and future plans, fork infrastructure can certainly make it easier to bind disparate realities together to meet external goals unreachable as individual parts. We can reach farther, apply to more funding opportunities, and offer much greater capacity if our network essentially is an organization unto itself. Infrastructure is often what we think of first when we think of networks, because since the late ’70s civil society organizing has largely been the domain of not-for-profits and as a result, just like the ubiquity of forks as our cutlery baseline, the norms of NGO culture pervade (and indeed are the main ingredients in) the growing network sector. This is neither a good nor bad thing but is certainly not the whole picture. Fork-oriented networks are the big ones that we’ve heard of with a paid organizational secretariat structure, good branding, and an emphasis on the value of the network itself.
Next, we have spoons, which serve a really important holding, internal function. Spoons help scoop up and hold things so they can cool off. Spoon-like networks can focus on raising up their internal membership, provide support like shared technological subscriptions or expertise, internal standards, or philosophical frameworks for organizing the work of associated members. They may even provide financial or other kinds of goods to their membership, pooled together for the greater good of all. They could also be hubs or alliances which could serve a dual purpose of creating mutual benefit through aggregating members or resources while raising their collective profile. This differs from fork-like infrastructure because the primary emphasis is mutual aid to associated members who create their own benefit through networking rather than being bound by an external networker. By creating a place of belonging to hold space and flesh out ideas, spoon-like networks can help differentiate themselves by deepening their thinking, deciding what issues they will and will not focus on within their capacity and intended goals. Spoon-oriented networks could be membership organizations or professional networks, or even portals and resource hubs that allow connection for a specific purpose or general needs. Some movements can be spoonlike, forming with general needs and demands and eventually evolving into more fork or knife-like directions.
Finally, we have knives, which point to the heart of collaboration. Networks with knife-like characteristics are those that are trying to cut through red tape or the noise of our busy world to reach specific goals. Knives have to be regularly sharpened, but the advantage of organizing around a sharp vision is that you’re more likely to stay focused on achieving that goal. Knife-like networks may have a short lifespan and an all-volunteer organizational structure because their existence is more often born out of necessity than an expectation of longevity. In this way, they are a counterpoint to fork-oriented networks whose infrastructure is to be preserved because they know that once they’ve reached their goal they will likely disband without ill-will or disappointment. Knives are also quite versatile for this reason because even if they do pare down or hone up to a slightly different goal than originally imagined, they are an end to a means and associated members will stick with them to the extent they are useful. Knife-like networks are forums, coalitions, or campaigns, which can often bring together the greatest diversity in membership to reach the most specific network-based goals.
So with our cutlery in mind, what are some key things we should consider about successfully networking.
- When the whole world’s a fork… besides being rude, you’d be hard-pressed to use only a fork for every meal that’s put before you. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that every network needs infrastructure to literally bind itself together. It could be that in spoon-networks there is already an inherent recognition in the value holding a common principle or in knife-networks that no major structure is needed to reach the set goal. Also, fork-oriented networks can fall prey to some of the most classic NGO problems: scarcity mentality and competition for resources (usually the first issues meant to be solved with collaboration), leadership problems and/or burnout, and compassion fatigue from trying to take on all the world’s problems.
- Do you really need a spork? Holding space is incredibly important in its own right. Sometimes just by gathering people together and brainstorming new directions, we come up with much better solutions than we once imagined. Many of us are afraid of group processes exactly because we fear excessive internal processing, which we must admit is not the fault of the tool itself but in how we use it. Arguably spoons are even more versatile than top-heavy forks or precision-knives because they may be an important first step to discerning the best way forward in a collaboration. One needs to know how to use them, it’s true, but…
- Measure twice, cut once. Even in strictly focused knife-like networks, we can’t lose sight of interconnectivity as the baseline strength of networking. Be cautious of excluding voices that challenge a certain assumption about how to address our goals, even if they do seem to slow things down. At the same time, when the time is right to really go for the gusto, remember that in a strictly goal-focused network we should be wary of sacred cows and be ready to act collectively once we’ve agreed where to cut.
Finally, a parting thought on the nature of networking in a global context: “standard” silverware, like nonprofits, is an invention of the global North that we take for granted. In fact, we’ve increasingly used disposable cutlery as we rush from one thing to the next, devaluing the tools that literally feed us. The overwhelming majority of the world’s population is playing along in any network meal while their native cutlery could be hands, bread, or chopsticks with centuries more practical R&D behind them. As feminists of color collective INCITE! points out in the forward to their excellent book “The Revolution will not be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex”:
“Globally, both foundations and non-profits/NGOs have received widespread criticism for their implicit or explicit support of First World interests and free-market capitalism.”
Many of us are in the networking game because we’d not only like to see changes in our home communities but also a greater shift toward global cooperation and interconnectivity. If COVID-19 has taught us anything as we share this collective experience of living farther apart in this time of global social distancing, it’s that when we come back to the table together we should look to what we already have in our hands to help us connect better.