Posted in Networks

October 6, 2015

Going Slow and Going Farther: Collective Impact and Building Networks for System Change


A recent report out of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University highlights a number of food systems change efforts that have adopted a collective impact approach. Two of these are initiatives that IISC supports – Food Solutions New England and Vermont Farm to Plate Network. The report distills common and helpful lessons across eight state-wide and regional efforts. Here I want to summarize and elaborate on some of the article’s core points, which I believe have applicability to virtually all collaborative networks for social change.

First off, the authors note the importance of context. They quote Margaret Adamek from the Minnesota Food Charter, who points out that “borrowing from other states and initiatives only goes so far as ‘the unique features of each place are what dictate the strategy.'” At IISC, we could not agree more. Complex systems suggest that we cannot bring a cookie cutter approach to change. As such, there is not one single appropriate model for food systems change. That said, the authors discuss common practices that can undergird a diversity of approaches.

  • Investing time – It always takes longer than you think or want. While this may not be the best marketing pitch for collective impact and network building, it is good to manage people’s expectations. This work is a marathon, not a sprint. Undoing and shifting years of practices, layers of institutional structures and fixed mindsets does not happen over-night. Furthermore, it takes time to build alignment among key players.
  • Building trustA recent blog post in the Stanford Social Innovations Review says it all – “In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.” Trust is what binds the efforts together and creates longer-term and more emergent potential.

Change begins and ends with relationships, and a big part of systems change is rewiring and bringing greater depth (trust) to existing patterns of relationships.

  • Being strategic about communication – Communication really is the lifeblood of networks. It’s what contributes to transparency, trust, social learning and adaptive capacity. Communication is not simply about one-way or one-to-many channels. Having myriad ways for people to connect and find one another helps to deliver value to more people in more ways.
  • Using stories as strategy and evaluation – In complex systems, stories become an avenue for sense-making as well as a means of capturing diverse human experiences in a system. Stories can also provide qualitative data about how systems are changing, and they tend to have stickiness and staying power that can keep people motivated and coming back.

Powerful stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth.

  • Tracking economic impact and other metrics – Arguably, economics underlies every kind of social change needed in this country. What I mean by this is that access to/ownership of resources of various kinds is key to power and self-determination, and affecting every system is the concentration and consolidation of power in ever fewer elite hands. Without tracking whether resources are growing in local communities and flowing and owned in more equitable ways, it is hard to say that we are making truly systemic change.
  • Engaging diverse stakeholders – Another underlying factor in every systemic issue in this country is the growing crisis of democracy. From small towns to big cities, the composition of the public is becoming increasingly complex. At IISC, we see all of our work as striving in some way, shape or form to answer the question: “How can we build the will and develop the skill of the diverse public to collectively create just and sustainable societies?” We see a future in which we are “all in;” all in providing the information and knowledge needed to understand the issues that affect us; all in making decisions that impact us; all in, and especially those who are most often left out and are most negatively impacted. This push for more inclusive processes and structures is what we call Big Democracy. In this sense, engaging diverse stakeholders is not simply a means but an end in and of itself.

Photo by Symphony of Love



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September 24, 2015

Networks for Change: Generosity is Key to Generativity

“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming.”

– bell hooks

shutterstock_121720933-topswirl rainbow wecan -crop

For the past month I’ve been in conversation with David Nee, former Executive Director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, to reflect on some of our shared experiences in advancing the Memorial Fund’s collaborative work for equity in the early childhood system in Connecticut. The impetus for these reflections was an invitation to co-author a blog post for a series on “network entrepreneurship” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The introductory post, written by Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer, is entitled “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of.” While it is true that many of the leaders featured are not necessarily household names, this does not preclude focus on those with formal authority who are visible in their own respective domains. That said, emphasis is on what people often don’t see or appreciate about what these “network entrepreneurs” do, including making space for others (see this post for some of the key network and collaborative leadership roles that are not always appreciated).

As David and I have worked on our piece, I’ve been thinking about four different positional leaders with whom I’ve partnered over the last few years in building networks for social change, all of whom we at IISC would call “facilitative leaders.” These four individuals are collectively diverse with respect to race, gender, age, change focus (civil rights, food system resilience, education reform, ecosystem sustainability) and, to a certain extent, personality. Beyond these differences, it strikes me that they all bring a common ability to navigate between being directive when needed but generally very open, inclusive and eager to follow the lead of the committed crowd in question. Even more striking is what I and others see these four embodying as a core ethic in their approach to the work. This was named by a participant in a recent network assessment interview as “generosity of spirit.” Yes, I thought when I heard it said, that is precisely a core and critical commonality. Generosity. And it can be such a difference maker.

“In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”

– Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer

In my experience, in some collaborative/network building efforts, especially as they launch, there can be something I call “folded arms syndrome.” This occurs when people come to the table and there is (for good and not so good reasons) an overall air of standoffishness. People tend to be cautious and/or skeptical, they want proof that this is going to be worth the time. While some kicking of the tires is understandable, the truth of the matter is that when it comes to networks, people will see the value they want to see only when they invest themselves. Seemingly knowing this, these four leaders, or “network guardians” as June Holley might call them, do not wait for others to make the first move. They authentically reach out, adopting an invitational, hosting and appreciative stance. And they continue to model generosity that over time becomes generative. That is, it helps to contribute to “net effects” and greater abundance (see this study on h0w generosity can cascade in social networks). Their offerings include, but are not limited to:

  • Courage – bringing vulnerability, willingness to take risks and leap of faith, often in the very form and process of emergent network building
  • Space – literally creating space to host others, helping others feel at home and also being clear that the network building endeavor is very much a shared one, honoring others’ experiences, opinions and knowledge
  • Doubt and resolve – saying “I don’t know (the answer, how to do this … ), but I’m willing to work hard with you to figure this out”
  • Attention – seeing others, showing interest in them, making time to get to know them
  • Resources – access to money, yes, as well as other supports to maintain and protect the collective space for relationship-building, deliberation, creating alignment and taking action
  • Truth – being authentic, and demonstrating a willingness to name “real issues” (elitism, racism, inequality, climate change) and in so doing inviting others to do the same

Clearly these individuals cannot and do not do it alone. They are surrounded by other facilitative leaders and network guardians. That said, as visible champions for the network building prospect, the way in which these leaders show up matters and can help set a tone for generativity and re-generativity which is one of the core promises of “net work” for social change.

“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nurture false charity.”

– Paolo Freire

Image by Isaac Mao

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September 10, 2015

Networks for Change: Skill, Will, Attitude and Structure

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel of presenters on a webinar hosted by Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future focused on collective impact and network building for food policy councils. Other panelists included Ellen Kahler from Vermont Farm to Plate Network, Jennifer Obadia from Health Care Without Harm, and Whitney Fields from Indianapolis Food Council. My role was to provide an overview of collective impact, giving credit to FSG and the Collective Impact Forum for codifying and advancing research and practice in this arena, as well as network building principles as applied to collaborative efforts to realize more local, just and sustainable food production, distribution and access. Read More

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August 12, 2015

Narrative Knitting Networks

“Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively.”

 – John Hagel

Sunflower in desert

What follows is a slightly edited version of a post from a little over a year ago. It remains timely in terms of conversations I am currently having with a few different networks about the interest in engaging in not just communications work, but in changing consciousness. As abstract as it may seem to some, the power of robustly connected and distributed networks to create and promote new stories of who “we” are and what we might become can be critical to the work of social change. 

Today’s post gives a tip of the hat and bow of gratitude to John Hagel for his work on narrative, which I believe has much to offer networks for social change.  First a little story . . .

A regional network with which I have been working has been wrestling with what has to this point been called “a vision” for the region’s future. Part of this struggle owes to attempts to create something that can speak to a very diverse and complex range of interests.  And part of the struggle, from my perspective, stems from what I see as the need to parse out and accentuate different elements that to this point have fallen under the rather broad heading of “vision.” Read More

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August 6, 2015

Networks, Collective Impact and Waking Up to Whiteness

“Processes aimed at racial equity change can overlook the privileged side of inequity.”

-Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk, “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity”

In a number of social change networks that I support, racial equity is being put at the center of the work, whether or not that was the initial impetus for coming together. This is not seen as ancillary to the change effort, but now understood as foundational, in that systemic inequity around race is a significant part of the water in which we swim. In a few of these networks where there is a majority of white participants, increasing numbers of people are asking what they can do about structural racism, and one response is that there is important work to be done around whiteness and white privilege. As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk point out, this is often a critical missing link in racial equity work.

A first step is to understand what “white culture” is. Again, Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk:

By ‘white culture,’ we mean the dominant, unquestioned standards of behavior and ways of functioning embodied by the vast majority of institutions in the United States. Because it is so normalized it can be hard to see, which only adds to its powerful hold. In many ways, it is indistinguishable from what we might call U.S. culture or norms – a focus on individuals over groups, for example, or an emphasis on the written word as a form of professional communication. But it operates in even more subtle ways, by actually defining what ‘normal’ is – and likewise, what ‘professional,’ ‘effective,’ or even ‘good’ is. In turn, white culture also defines what is not good, ‘at risk,’ or ‘unsustainable.’

This can be difficult for white people to take in or accept (speaking from personal experience), because white privilege is hard to see, because we may not want to see it and/or we don’t like the idea of giving it up. This lays out the necessarily multi-dimensional work of helping more of us to see and understand white privilege, deal with some of the emotions that come up around it (without lapsing into unhelpful defensive behavior – see “white fragility“) and lift up what is to be gained from doing this work.


In the year since Ferguson and with the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, it has been heartening to see increasing numbers of white people talking and concerned about racism and white privilege. This has taken some more mainstream and public forms, including an ongoing column in the New York Times hosted by George Yancy in which he interviews a variety of thinkers about race, racism and privilege (see Naomi Zack and Judith Butler below). As a practice I regularly circulate these writings to the networks I support as a way of helping to normalize the conversation, which feels like a signifcant part of the work. In this same spirit, here are a few I have shared with selected excerpts:

  • What “White Privilege” Really Means“The term ‘white privilege’ is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. But I think that is what ‘white privilege’ is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do.” – Naomi Zack
  • 11 Ways White America Avoids Taking Responsibility for its Racism“When you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are irrelevant. And when you understand how socialization works, you understand that much of racial bias is unconscious. Negative messages about people of color circulate all around us. … The societal default is white superiority and we are fed a steady diet of it 24/7. To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it.” – Robin Diangelo
  • What’s Wrong With “All Lives Matter”? – “Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered ‘normal.’ But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as ‘normal’ through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter.” – Judith Butler
  • I, RacistWhite people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about ‘I, racist’ and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.” – John Metta

In addition, at IISC we have found sharing film clips, including the one above from Shakti Butler’s Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, to be helpful in deepening understanding among white people of white privilege and how white privilege being aware of itself can be leveraged in productive ways, towards equity.

And a few additional recommended resources, a number courtesy of my colleague Cynthia Silva Parker:

Also check out the World Trust module below, which features the work of Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White.

Eager to hear reactions, stories and other resources/ideas.

How are you considering whiteness and white privilege in your networks and collective impact efforts for change?


Click on image for more information on this module on “Raced in America White Culture, Privilege and Bias Facilitator’s Guide”

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July 28, 2015

Networks: Don’t Wait, Animate!


Just coming off of co-delivering a 2 day Pathway to Change public workshop at IISC with Maanav Thakore, and I’m continuing to think about how important context is to the work of social change. In particular, I’m thinking about how seeing the foundation of all change efforts as being fundamentally networked can yield new possibilities throughout the work. There is the change we plan for, and the change that we don’t plan for and perhaps cannot even imagine – emergence. This is the stuff of networks, of living systems, of decentralized and self-organized activity, which can be encouraged and supported but not often predicted or controlled. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How do I have to be for you to be free?

Orland Bishop

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July 22, 2015

Network Development: Social Learning as Social Change

“We are actually waiting for civilization both to learn and reorganize itself with more intricacy, more collaborative coherence and greater social intelligence.”

– Sally J. Goerner, The New Science of Sustainability

social learningTwo weeks ago I wrapped up Harold Jarche’s on-line course on social learning and am committing to practicing some of what I learned through blogging as “learning out loud.” This is not an entirely unusual practice for me, but Harold has helped me to better appreciate the value of turning off the critic and putting “rough draft thinking” out there, as a way of crystalizing and mastering my own knowledge but also (possibly) connecting it to others who may be on the same wavelength/ have similar lines of inquiry and (perhaps) contributing to social change. Preposterous? Maybe.

But consider how our understanding of how the world works is shifting through our ability to see connections, appreciate the social creation of knowledge and grasp the emergent nature of change. Seeing reality through a living systems lens helps us to understand ideas as seeds, expression as sowing, interaction as fertilizer and social networks as the metabolic infrastructure to bring new things fully to fruition. Read More

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July 1, 2015

Stories: Feeding Networks Forward


Photo by NASA Goddard

Last week I had an interesting conversation with an evaluator who was curious about some of the networks for food system development we’ve been supporting through IISC. We got to talking about “metrics,” which led into consideration of the role of story in not simply gauging network effectiveness, but also in stimulating network evolution. Communication and social learning are part of the life-blood of human networks. This is something that we’re coming to understand at a more profound level amidst the complexity of food system transformation work at all levels.

As we try to identify “leverage points” to shift regional food system dynamics in New England in the direction of increased local production, food security, economic development, resiliency and equity across the board, we are realizing that more robust connectivity and sharing across boundaries of many kinds is a significant strategy and form of structural change that can allow for critical self-organization and adaptation. Stories become one of the critical nutrients in this work.


For example, as much as we have begun to share data, and importantly disaggregated data, across the region, we have found that stories often have more stickiness and staying power. The stories that were shared at last year’s Food Solutions New England (FSNE) Food Summit about racial equity and white privilege have been referenced for their impact in creating an environment of genuineness, that have spurred others to speak up and take up the conversation about the reality of structural racism in our food system. This has in turn brought more trust and diversity to the network, which has helped to create a more comprehensive understanding of the food system and possibilities for decentralized and more formally coordinated network action.

Furthermore, we have begun to solicit stories of success and innovation around embracing the FSNE Vision (of 50% self-sufficiency with regards to regional food production by the year 2060) and racial equity commitment. And coming out of this year’s Summit, there is interest in sharing stories of how people are working towards “fair price” across the food chain, in such a way that food workers, producers of varying scales, distributers and consumers have living wages and access to health-promoting and culturally diverse food. The curation of these stories we see as beginning to change the underlying economic narrative.

Stories then become fuel in many ways, providing different points of access, connection, inspiration, education, and meaning-making. Stories are like enriched compost that can be fed back into the network to nurture new growth. Our work as a Network Team, as network gardeners, is to “close the resource loop,” encourage and support more equitable channels for expression, more cross-fertilization, more interest in diverse (and concealed) stories and “processing venues” for these (virtual and in-person).

How are you using story to feed your net work forward?


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June 17, 2015

Network Building: Bringing Together “The Barnyard”


Photo by Rebecca Siegel

Still fresh on the heels of the 5th annual Food Solutions New England Regional Food Summit, many attendees seem to be buzzing about the two days of conversation in Boston that focused on the 2060 Vision, racial equity commitment, food chain workers campaigns, and the challenge of creating “fair price” across the food system. It was my privilege to facilitate for a third year, and to help set the tone for the evolving spirit of regionalism and ongoing work of network building. I opened with the following story, which some of you may know well, and comments. Read More

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May 20, 2015

The Networks Revolution

Those who see networks as a fad likely see them only as a tactic, as opposed to a fundamental way of being.


By Calvinius [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago, Scientific American published a guest blog looking at the revolution in human thought that is being inspired by a network perspective. In the post, co-authors John Edward Terrell, Termeh Shafie and Mark Golitko write about how modern research in the natural and social sciences increasingly shows how the world does not revolve around people as individuals:

“Instead, what we are like as individuals critically depends on how we are linked socially and emotionally with others in relational networks reaching far and wide.”

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May 13, 2015

Networks for Change: Full Benefit Accounting

“Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

~Kurt Vonnegut

Photo by Phillie Casablanca

Last week while having a discussion with a group about food system economics, I was reminded that the word “externalities” does not always refer to something bad. An externality can also be something beneficial that is not formally accounted for by “the market.” This had me reflecting on what can happen in networks, really any collaborative endeavor, where some of the real “goods” remain out of sight, on the edges of peripheral vision, at least with respect to where people typically tend to concentrate focus. Read More

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May 7, 2015

“Mapping” Questions to Enrich Networks

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to facilitate some of Farm to Institution New England‘s (or FINE’s) Summit at UMass-Amherst. Specifically I was asked to offer a bit of thinking, a few prompts and guide conversation here and there around the potential of further developing the Farm to College network, as represented in the room that day by students, faculty, college administrators, community organizers, institutional procurement professionals, farmers, funders and others from the so-called “value chain.”

I told the story that has been passed on to me by Beth Tener about her work with the Barr Foundation around the Green and Healthy Buildings Network in Boston. This is a well documented example of the power of mapping and connecting agents in related but otherwise separate fields for mutual benefit and greater impact. We used this as a jumping off point at the Summit to encourage people to be more curious about existing and potential connectivity in the room.

As we invited people to consider their connections and close triangles throughout the day, I offered the following questions for reflection that I find useful when helping participants in networks become more aware and intentional regarding their potential:

Who is here and who is not here and how does that matter?

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