Network Gardening

March 20, 2013 4 Comments

|Photo by idleformat||

An interesting innovation I’ve seen recently in the realm of network building for social change is the creation of what is being called, in one particular system with which I am working, the “Network Support Team.”  In the context of what has emerged to this point as an “alignment network” focused on state-wide food system development and addressing community food insecurity, this volunteer team has stepped forward to help “tend to the whole.”  It functions much as a good gardener would in her attempts to nurture abundance and flourishing.  As this network considers movement into a more action/production-oriented mode, here is how the NST is helping the garden to grow:

  • Create (permeable) boundaries to harness and focus energy in the network “garden.”  This has been done by putting together convenings of the network, facilitating a process that shapes more of a shared value proposition in the form of a vision and guiding values, and setting up a listserv to help people share information and learnings in the direction of their shared vision and values.  At the same time, tending to the permeability of these boundaries is critical so as to be open to new energy and ensuring that diversity is at the table and equity on it (an ongoing effort!).
  • Feed the soil to invite new ideas and initiatives to take root.  This has been accomplished to date through creating diverse convenings (where good local food is available!), using Open Space techniques, inviting reactions to and lively conversation around proposals, and encouraging people to meet and greet one another.
  • Plant seeds of ideas and initiatives by asking provocative questions, bringing in examples from other networks, and putting forth proposals for possible next steps.
  • Water and fertilize seedlings of ideas and initiatives to support growth and development where there is interest and will, but perhaps not sufficient capacity.  This has been happening through the provision of facilitation support, coaching, and making connections to content experts, other networks and resources.
  • Connect elements and cross-pollinate to provide mutual support, yield new forms and functions, and to “grow the pie” of resources.  This has been done by intentionally structuring convenings and conversations that invite people from different communities and sub-sectors to meet, encouraging and modeling a spirit of generosity and transparency, and inviting physical movement during gatherings.
  • Transplant elements, in the form of ideas and initiatives, to soil where they might have more robust support.  This has yet to happen, but could as nascent “task teams” find homes in existing organizations and other related initiatives.
  • Compost some of the yield of the network, or other networks, by feeding learnings back into the network and food system, either by way of sharing on the listserv, providing information in gatherings, or creating space for people to reflect on their own learnings and share with one another.

This metaphor seems to really be feeding the energy of the network overall.  What might you adopt, add or adjust?


  • This is really good stuff Curtis. It’s funny because when we talk about “network building” sometimes I feel like we reinforce the industrial paradigm, network gardening seems so much more appropriate, specially given the steps that you described

    On a more romantic note, on the very first day that I met Samantha, the woman who is now my wife, she was talking to me about a shift in leadership from driver to gardener… your title is close to my heart!

  • Hector says:

    this is great Curtis! When i think about network development I always thought about it as cultivating a garden or a field. A network needs tending and lots of care!

  • David Crowley says:

    Great piece, Curtis. I tend to use the term “cultivate” related to network building a good bit. I like seeing the gardening metaphor developed more here. A follow-up question would be how to demonstrate how the commitment to networking cultivation leads to better results related to the social mission. Seems like you are seeing some already, would be good to be able to document.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    David, thanks for your comments. I obviously like the garden metaphor and I think you are asking the right question about gauging ultimate impact in terms of social value. We are definitely seeing that in places where policies are changing, resource flows are changing, and systems are being reshaped. And it is very much a longer journey, when we are talking about things like racial and economic equity and more sustainable food systems! What are you seeing as promising in the network fields?

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