Networks for Change: Generosity is Key to Generativity

September 24, 2015 4 Comments

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

– bell hooks

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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


  • Thanks for these insights! Great concept: “the folded arms syndrome”. I definitely can relate to that. Also made me think of the typical “hub-and-spoke” network topology, with everyone sitting with folded arms, looking at the central hub and waiting for her to act.

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