Strategically Leveraging Networks to Support Social Impact

Oxford Saïd Researcher and Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, gives us a whistle stop tour of her recent DPhil research.

The cultivation of networks is one of the most popular tools for supporting social entrepreneurship and social innovation. Venture philanthropists, hubs, foundations, national and local networks all try to foster social impact by connecting social innovators with their peers, with potential investors and donors, and with individuals and organizations that can become their mentors and advisors. Yet, there is little knowledge on “best practices”, on what works and what doesn’t, and on the different ways in which network-based support to social innovation can be structured.

Over the past four years, I have analysed the features of four very different social entrepreneurship support organizations (a foundation, a venture philanthropist, a network organization and a trade association). Each of them has been successful in supporting the growth and development of social entrepreneurship in England over the past 15 years through the creation and management of multi-stakeholder networks. I was surprised to find that, despite their differences, each of these organizations engages in similar activities with regard to network-management.

Shared network strategies

First of all, the four agencies invest significant effort in signalling through multiple means the initiatives and success of the individuals and organizations that are affiliated to them. For example, they talk about their operations, impact and achievements on websites and newsletters. In addition, they engage with local, national and international media platforms (newspapers, magazines, televisions, etc.) so that the positive news coming from their contacts can spread even beyond their own reach. Furthermore, they organize yearly award ceremonies that provide additional coverage and popularity to the most successful part of their networks, usually the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they are trying to help.

Secondly, the four organizations have proactively created within their networks an environment favouring the coming together and collaboration of individuals and organizations from different sectors and backgrounds. For example, these organizations publish blogs and articles on the benefits of cross-sector collaboration and propose common projects to their network members in a way that highlights what each of them can obtain from collaborating with individuals and organizations from other sectors. Furthermore, they train their members in multiple ways in order to reduce sector and cultural barriers among them. Each of the four organizations has also developed a narrative stressing how real change and impact are only possible in the presence of cross-sector collaboration.

Thirdly, the four agencies often try to elevate the reputation of the social entrepreneurs and enterprises present in their networks. They set up free events, webinars and initiatives explaining the benefits of social entrepreneurship for society and its superiority to other means to deliver social impact. Additionally, they present social entrepreneurs and enterprises in their online and offline communication, as well as in their events, in an enthusiastic light, defining them as the changers of the world or the creators of a more just and inclusive society. The elevation and legitimation of social innovators in these (and other) ways puts them in a stronger position when negotiating for help and support with players from other sectors that might be more established and resource-endowed than they are.

Finally, the four organizations manage the unavoidable competition (for funds, recognition for the “best approach”, attention, etc.) among the social entrepreneurs and enterprises that they support in a way that makes it possible and almost natural for them to collaborate and share ideas. For example, two of the agencies encourage friendships and frequent contacts among their network members, another one directly adopts a negotiation role when collaboration is needed among “competitors” for a specific project. In general, all four have tried to attract enough opportunities and resources into their networks to be able to provide something to everyone, so that the social entrepreneurs and enterprises they support do not perceive that the success of a peer might mean their own failure.

Diverging outcomes

However, despite the engagement in similar activities, the four organizations did not appear equally effective in leveraging their networks to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. My data showed that if an organization manages a relatively small network – no more than 100-150 social innovators and partners/supporters – then it is in a good position to effectively employ its contacts to help social entrepreneurs and enterprises. Indeed, a manageable network opens up the possibility to know well enough the resources and contacts available and to propose meaningful connections and strategic advice. Additionally, in small networks it is easier to create a family-feeling and to set clearer expectations about each member’s contribution to the “common cause” — in this case the enhancement and scaling up of social impact — thus also making the maintenance of collaborations and connections easier.

On the contrary, if an organization deals with a larger network, its ability to provide helpful connections and advice is necessarily limited by the impossibility of knowing well each of the individuals and ventures attached to its network. In this case, the added value of the organization is rarely based on its offering of connections but derives instead from other resources. For example, one of the organizations analysed, which manages a large network, was praised by social entrepreneurs and enterprises for its delivery of helpful information on the legal landscape for social entrepreneurship and for signalling the resources available in the sector in terms of funds and expertise at the local level. Alternatively, organizations managing large networks might think about using their contacts to attract funds to redistribute among their affiliates for expenses they have a hard time getting funds for, such as capacity building or experimentation.

Are networks helpful?

Absolutely, but only under certain circumstances which are often determined by the network size and by the organization’s own capacities and resources. Therefore, a networking strategy should be tailored to the type of network an organization is managing. In any case, the analysis of four successful “networkers” in the social entrepreneurship sector suggests that the creation of connections and networking opportunities should be sustained through supporting activities, such as the four described above: the showcasing of a network’s members and projects; the establishment of an environment supporting the creation and maintenance of cross-sector connections; the support of social entrepreneurs and enterprises in negotiating with other players; and the management of internal competition.

None withstanding the importance of networks and the opportunities they provide to support social impact in many different ways, in a space that is almost saturated with networks it might also make sense to map out what is already there and maybe join or support an existing network rather than building a new one. Because several organizations provide similar types of support but not all of them do it effectively, in some instances it might make more sense to pool resources across “networkers” in order to jointly deliver a more powerful and comprehensive support rather than to keep trying to build new networks. If my research confirmed one thing is that there is already a lot of help available in the social entrepreneurship and social impact space but often “networkers” do not have the resource or capacity to be effective in everything they do and social innovators might end up not accessing any type of support because of the excess of supply makes it difficult to understand what network might be the right fit.