In 2007 Bridgespan issued a comprehensive report to help national non-profits and networks establish processes and enhance their planning and, ultimately, long-term impact. The report recommends that these organizations articulate a clear value proposition, involve the network, define roles, use data and engage the board.
For example, as outlined in Section B, PLAN, successful networks often start planning from the outside in by describing how they will address their beneficiaries’ priorities and needs. This is how they determine a value proposition. Promising networks also use an inclusive approach throughout the planning process, clearly define the roles of each of key partners in the process, use data to drive decisions and engage the board to ensure message consistency and maximize the use of member expertise.
Make a Value Proposition
Successful networks often plan from the outside in. They start by articulating a value proposition based on their beneficiaries’ priorities and needs. At the outset they establish clarity on the impact the network intends to have and its understanding of how it will achieve that impact.
Involve the Network
Successful networks adopt and use an inclusive approach throughout the planning process. This is necessary because network members do most of the work of delivering against the mission, while the backbone organization provides support, guidance and leadership. Involving the network throughout the planning process has two key benefits: 1) Decision quality is likely to be better when the people responsible for implementing those decisions also participate in making them; and 2) the likelihood of rapid implementation increases when people are engaged through the process rather than pulled in at the end.
Networks can follow three key steps to involve members:
- Gather initial input: Gathering initial input can take on various forms depending on the network culture and the size and similarity of its members. For example, networks can use regular telephone touch-base calls, member surveys, video conferences or share and engage through the use of other technologies. It is better to over-invest when it comes to gathering input because the goals include not only learning enough to drive conclusions, but also building network involvement in general.
- Review input and share insight: Once network leaders collect input and compiled results, they need to involve network members in reviewing the inputs, developing the conclusions and understanding reasons behind decisions. An inclusive process of reviewing input and sharing insight increases the likelihood of faster and broader implementation and establishes legitimacy for the decisions.
- Disseminate new initiatives: Once made, decisions need to be disseminated among network leadership. If the network has been genuinely engaged throughout the process, then this step is more a confirmation of joint decisions than an announcement from the center of the network. Disseminating new initiatives gives the network an opportunity to cement alignment across members, ensuring that members are moving in the same direction.
In every network there are at least two distinct organizations: the backbone organization and partner organizations. The backbone organization often provides core functions while partner organizations undertake different pieces of work. Clearly defining the roles of each network member improves the effectiveness and efficiency of the entire network. Clarity of roles also helps eliminate gaps that occur when no one has responsibility for a particular set of activities and multiple parties are developing redundant programs. While some role overlap can be important (e.g., fundraising responsibilities), it should be intentional, not something that has developed over time. Using members where they are most interested increases the likelihood of on-going participation; thus, leaders should consider surveying members to determine interest in specific roles.
Using data to drive decisions ensures that decisions are not just based on the opinions of those who might have the most experience or be the most impassioned speaker. Decision quality and degree of consensus both increase significantly when historical performance data is added to the mix.
Engage the Board
Boards often drive the development of a new strategic plan and use it as a roadmap for governance responsibilities. That said, oftentimes boards limit their involvement to commissioning the effort and approving the final product. This limited engagement is detrimental; the board must be fully engaged throughout the process. Full board involvement ensures consistency in the messages sent to both the network and outsiders, has to power to build board commitment and allows the board to benefit from members’ expertise.