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📚 How to Build a Network for Impact

🤔 Wait, WhoTF is David Ehrlichman!?

David Ehrlichman

Author of Impact Networks. Catalyst of Converge. Thinking about the way we work together and how it can be different.


“It's all coordination, and it always has been.” - Kevin Owocki

In our era of complexity, we need ways of working together that span our traditional boundaries. We need collaborative structures that are flexible enough to shift on a moment’s notice, that are resilient enough to withstand turbulence and disruption, and that bring people together as equals to share leadership and decision-making.

This is what networks -- intentionally formed and purposefully coordinated -- can provide. Networks are the structures of relationships underlying DAOs, affecting how DAO members connect, communicate, and coordinate with one another to take on challenges that no single person could address on their own.

Humans have always formed networks. Our social networks grow whenever we introduce our friends to each other, when we move to a new town, or when we congregate around a shared set of beliefs. Social networks have shaped the course of history. Historian Niall Ferguson has noted that many of the biggest changes in history were catalyzed by networks—in part, because networks have been shown to be more creative and adaptable than hierarchical systems.

Ferguson goes on to assert that “the problem is that networks are not easily directed towards a common objective. . . . Networks may be spontaneously creative but they are not strategic.”

This is where we disagree. While networks are not inherently strategic, they can be designed to be strategic. When deliberately cultivated, networks can forge connections across divides, spread information and learning, and coordinate action. These “impact networks” can be powerful vehicles for creating change. (Note: all DAOs, if sufficiently decentralized, can be considered impact networks, but not all impact networks are DAOs)

While the “why” (a network’s purpose) and the “what” (a network’s actions) differ widely from one impact network to another, the “how” (a network’s formation) is remarkably consistent. Forming, cultivating, and sustaining an impact network involves five core activities, referred to as the “Five Cs”:

  • Clarify the network’s purpose and principles
  • Convene the people
  • Cultivate trust
  • Coordinate actions
  • Collaborate for change

These five activities are dynamic and interdependent. Never fully complete and not strictly linear, they loop back and forth on each other as the network evolves, and they’ll be revisited over and over throughout a network’s life cycle.

Clarify the Network’s Purpose and Principles

A network’s purpose is its reason for being; it’s what inspires people to join and contribute their time and energy. Clarifying a common purpose is an essential early step in forming an impact network. Due to their self-organizing nature, impact networks can’t be controlled. They can, however, be oriented toward a shared purpose, and this shared purpose is how networks stay coherent—even as they grow.

As a network clarifies its purpose, articulating its shared principles is also helpful. Principles are fundamental beliefs about how network members intend to conduct themselves and work together in pursuit of the network’s purpose. They guide members’ behavior and decision-making by linking values with action.

Together, purpose and principles create a foundation for vibrant, and coherent, self-organization.

*Try this tip: Use this exercise to uncover the personal motivations—the “whys”—that inspire people to join a network.*

Convene the People

Fundamentally, cultivating a network is about bringing people together to create a more interconnected whole. Connections are central to what makes networks work.

There are many ways to create connections: one-on-one, through group calls, through online communication platforms, and more. However, one method consistently stands above the rest: convening your people.

Convening is the art of gathering people together simultaneously, whether in person or online. Successful convenings create a generative space where people interact, think, talk, and collaborate in new ways. Convenings transform members’ relationships and create moments where participants envision and build their future together, making them critical touchstones for emerging and mature networks alike.

*Try this tip: Use this list of questions to help members open up and connect at your next convening.*

Cultivate Trust

Impact networks are only as strong as the relationships that hold them together—and these relationships influence nearly everything a network aims to achieve, including how information is shared, how decisions are made, and how work gets done.

When relationships deepen to a point of mutual confidence—when two people feel they can count on each other to act in service to the network’s purpose—we call that trust. Trust is the fundamental element that establishes a culture of openness, commitment, and collaboration.

Importantly, trust shouldn’t be confused with people liking each other or agreeing. To work together, people don’t need to like one another. And they certainly don’t need to agree on every issue. Instead, trust within an impact network is about finding common ground and working together to achieve mutual goals.

Although it’s widely accepted that trust helps people collaborate, a network may be tempted to quickly “get to the action” and let relationships develop naturally over time. However, we’ve consistently found that trust is the single most important factor behind successful impact networks; networks move at the speed of trust. Therefore, trust should be deliberately nurtured within a network from day one.

*Try this tip: Use this group exercise to build trust, form deeper relationships, and set the stage for courageous conversations.*

Coordinate Actions

Impact networks aren’t just about relationships; they’re also about flows—getting information, knowledge, and resources to where they’re needed most.

When flows are accelerated across networks, people are better able to coordinate their actions: sharing new or promising practices with one another, reducing unnecessary duplication, and finding quick wins that demonstrate the immediate value of the network.

*Try this tip: Use this exercise to quickly coordinate your members’ needs and what they’re interested in exploring.*

Collaborate for Change

Increasing connections and flows across networks creates many positive benefits. But if the goal of your network is to bring about far-reaching, systemic change, you’ll need to dive deeper and explore possible leverage points. These are the places in a system where, as environmental advocate Donella Meadows once put it, “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”

However, to create big changes in an equally big system, a network must first explore the system from many different perspectives. People and organizations are usually focused on particular pieces of the puzzle, and for good reason: each piece is important, and it takes focus to develop deep expertise and experience on particular issues. But if they continue to work in isolation, they’ll be limited in their understanding of the whole.

This is what makes a network approach so valuable. A network solves three basic problems:

  • Limited knowledge: People typically engage with different parts of a system, with expertise in “their piece of the puzzle.” Networks combine and distribute this knowledge.
  • Separation: Most people are disconnected; they’re unable or unwilling to share knowledge and resources with others. Not so in a network.
  • Complexity: A system is more complex than any one person can grasp on their own. Networks bring the pieces together so groups make sense of the whole puzzle.

Without seeing the whole system, we have little chance of creating the systemic changes we wish to see in the world. But by bringing people together in a network, we can address issues from many angles at once, see the big picture, and make decisions that benefit the whole system, not just part of it.