by Roselie Vasquez Yetter and Alyson Lyons
Civil society organizations come together to form networks and coalitions for a variety of reasons – maybe they are looking to maximize impact by collectively advocating on a particular issue or they are interested in sharing resources and skills, or simply just want to learn from one another. While it is one thing to form a network, it is quite another to maintain its existence during times of uncertainty and dynamic shifts to the funding and operating environments.
Our own Partners Network story is one of resiliency and renewal. Over the years, the needs of our network have shifted, and in 2020 we were faced with the challenge to adapt and thrive or remain static and decline. We called upon the PeaceNexus Foundation to facilitate a network strengthening process that forced us to come to terms with some major questions about who we are as a network and why we are together. Reimagining our purpose opened our minds to how we want to work together and resulted in new structures for leadership, collaboration, and communication. It also opened our eyes to aspects of our structural and financial models that were in need of a bit of a renovation and upgrade.
One of the main aspects of network resiliency is the ability to leverage peer networks for mutual sharing and learning. Connectedness, unsurprisingly, is one of the factors in our ResiliencyPlus Framework that we expand upon regularly. Our 32 years as a network brings the awareness that being in a network isn’t enough – the intentionality of the purpose for joining and engaging is the key to activating the potential of the network and making participation worthwhile.
Recently together with the PeaceNexus Foundation, we co-facilitated a learning opportunity with peers from other civil society peace and development networks to share our own story and collect insights from others. The result was a rich and honest exchange of the major challenges, lessons, and adaptations networks are making to not only survive, but thrive in our ever-changing environment. Below are two main outcomes of the exchange.
Distributive leadership instead of command and control
Let’s face it. The age of the rigid, hierarchical leadership structure is a thing of the past. While the command and control model worked primarily to generate resources for a network, today these funding pools are no longer as widely available as they were fifteen years ago. Command and control style of centralized leadership also creates layers of bureaucracy, stifling collaboration and creating unequal power dynamics amongst network members that serve to create competition rather than build trust and collaboration.
Enter the distributive leadership model. Distributive leadership is a shared management model that decentralizes leadership at the top and disperses decision making from one individual to a collective group or groups. Distributive leadership empowers members who, under more centralized structures, may not have an opportunity to step into a leadership role – upending deeply rooted power structures and impacting resource allocation. The Partners Network adopted a distributed leadership model as a result of our self-evaluation process. This created new leadership pathways for members to step into decision-making roles, such as the Young Professionals Group. Today, the YPG is made up of mid-level professionals and is responsible for organizing network wide trainings on topics of interest, such as a skill like mediation or thematic area like conflict transformation.
There are still situations where command and control might be more effective, such as with crisis management. However, being able to implement this form of leadership for specific circumstances rather than employing it as the overarching model may be more effective for the challenges of today. Leadership does not need to reside at the top. It can emerge at all levels of an organization if the right leadership model is in place.
Decentralized governance structure in the virtual space
Closely related to the leadership model is a network’s governance structure, which tells us how a network organizes and regulates itself. Traditionally, civil society networks adopted formal governance structures and practices that set up rigid policies, agreed upon business development goals, and membership parameters. But does this approach still make sense as we operate more and more in the virtual space? Networks always had some aspect of online operations, but the pandemic forced the accelerated adoption of practices that generally were in person such as annual conferences or regional meetings. And it doesn’t look like we will be turning back. Combined with the decline in general support funds, maintaining a network today falls heavily on the shoulders of its members. More often than not, member-driven administrative and operational roles are voluntary and often struggle to remain at the top of the priority list.
From our own experience and those shared at the learning event, many networks are adapting to their new virtual reality and transitioning from more formal governance structures to more flexible, decentralized ones. Decentralized governance allows for new modes of collaboration, communication, and coordination to evolve organically. It also levels the playing field and invites input from diverse voices, creating a more equitable and inclusive network culture. For example, our own decentralization process inadvertently led to strengthened ties amongst network members located in the same region. We reflected on the expression of regional sub-network coordination and decided to lean in. This was achieved by creating a Liaison Group comprised of regional representatives that serve as a voice for members in each region when needing to make decisions on issues and opportunities that affect the entire network. This new process has created space for more authentic conversations that take cultural sensitivities and norms into consideration in a more intentional and organic way.
The future of networks
If there is one thing that most analysts agree on, it’s that we will never go back 100% to our pre-pandemic reality. Dynamics will continue to shift, impacting how we as civil society actors come together. And we need to continue to find ways to join forces and collaborate. Networks are a conduit of civil society resiliency. We must adapt to not just survive but thrive. Resilient networks not only weather crises – they emerge stronger and more unified. Inter-organizational network sharing and strategizing is an even more effective determinant of resilient network outcomes. What we all agreed during our learning and sharing session was that each of the networks represented was able to recover from sudden crises that we encountered. What we realized was that more important than recovery is the need to learn to develop the ability to make use of the opportunities brought on by a crisis. By doing so, we can turn the obstacle into an opportunity for growth and learning. In a network, that growth can be amplified and magnified. It’s our responsibility to our members to help transform the deflection of the shock to an embrace of the potential for positive change in a world of endless disruption.