Funder’s Need to Develop a ‘Network Mindset’

by Adene Sacks

This past week, 145 Foundation representatives gathered in San Francisco to explore the role of networks in philanthropy. The event, entitled Growing Social Impact: A Grantmaker’s Gathering on Networks, was sold out from the moment registration opened.

This burgeoning interest in networks is an early indicator that the growing interconnectedness and interdependence in the social sector is exciting shifts in the role of funding and funders. Solutions to today’s problems have come to depend on funders’ ability to activate the multiplicity of partners involved in any form of social or communal change. Said differently: funders must harness the power of networks in their quest for impact.

Social networks are not a new phenomenon. As early as the 1970’s, sociologists determined that the people we know only tangentially through social networks impact our identities, knowledge acquisition and relationships more than those people we know intimately. Today we are seeing the “network effect” of this phenomenon: as networks have become bigger and more explicit, their size and importance has grown very quickly. Networks visibly influence many aspects of our lives today, broadcasting who we know, how we affiliate, and the extent of our influence.

In this context, networks are a not only a reflection of social structure, they are a tool for achieving that structure. A curated network can enable participants to propagate diverse perspectives, to crowd-source joint work, and to establish and rewrite community norms. For those who choose to engage, networks offer the simultaneous roles of follower and leader, teacher and student, connector and expert.

My work at the Jim Joseph Foundation has me convinced that the embrace and mastery of networks is also key to bolstering the vibrancy of the Jewish world. Networks offer a continuous flow of information and relationships; as such, they are a potent vector for imbuing the multifaceted identities of today’s Jewish youth with meaning and connection sourced from our tradition, community and values. In my view, effective philanthropy will depend on our ability to strategically weave the connections between the old and new, the knowledgeable and the curious, the deeply held and the lightly considered in our Jewish context.

Despite the prominence of networks, funders are still in the early stages of understanding what networks mean in their work. For the past two decades, foundations have been pushed to think beyond funding discrete programs. Much of the discourse has focused on building and scaling effective, nimble and healthy organizations as key to achieving impact. More recently, funders have a growing comfort funding coalitions and strengthening fields of practice.

Today, two phenomena have changed the funding game. The scale and complexity of social issues coupled with the speed, transparency and constant participation demanded by digital technology has essentially upended our understanding of how to achieve impact. As funders, we must begin to understand the impact of these new realities on our ability to achieve our mission and implement the tools now at our disposal.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we see tremendous opportunity in tapping into the social networks of young Jews. Our primary interest lies in the ability of networks to further social contagion and promote Jewish identity formation. Accepted practice within a peer group – whether it be wearing a particular brand, going on a Birthright trip or choosing to hold Shabbat dinner with friends – is established and amplified by those tangential relationships within a network.

Currently, over 18% of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s grants portfolio is invested in organizations whose primary purpose is to build networks. These include professional networks like the Pardes Educator Alumni Network as well as networks of individuals built by the likes of Moishe House, Reboot, NEXT and Hillel. While organizations will always be the agents of our work, we now understand that ignoring the power and presence of social networks both within and around our grantee organizations will put us at a disadvantage. We intend to work with grantees and funding partners to adopt a ‘network mindset’ using networks as both a tool for change – and as a community construct.

To learn more, download the recently released report: Monitor Institute’s Catalyzing Networks for Social Change: A Funder’s Guide at

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  1. Joyce Schriebman says

    Thanks for this renewed look at networking. From its heyday, when we pressed-the-flesh at cocktail mixers, to today’s explosion on FB and Twitter, people connecting to people with similar, complementary, or contrasting needs, creates magic. When MLK talked about “the inescapable network of mutuality”, he wasn’t referring to the third sector. But in many ways we, too, are “tied in a single garment of destiny”. Whether we’re community organizing, advocating for the disenfranchised, or supporting each other at a roundtable event, networking maximizes resources. Social capital is our greatest strength. Communication, our greatest tool. Thanks, Adene!

  2. says

    Fantastic! Insightful and informative, this is a wonderful statement of how to think, fund, act and manage in our connected landscape. At Darim we’ve found as organizations recognize the value in investing in and working with their networks, the also learn their lack of capacity to do so in a strategic and high quality way. Many organizations have been hiring for “social media manager” and “community weaver” sorts of positions, but are struggling to find the right person with the Jewish communal interest, knowledge of their particular programmatic area, and the experience to use the social tools effectively.

    Thus, we’re currently researching and planning how to best mature the up and coming workforce to fill these positions, which we expect to multiply quickly over the next few years as organizational leadership (and funders and donors) recognize the need to invest in the network capacity of the organization. I am very interested to learn about any other fields investing in this sort of training or capacity building.

    Thanks for sharing your insights from the gathering, and your work at the Foundation.

  3. says

    Adene – thank you for sharing this its helpful and challenging. It provoked me to ask the question: how and in what ways can networks be platforms for Jewish learning? How can we best integrate Jewish learning into existing networks and/or create new networks that include Jewish learning. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

  4. Kate Belza says

    This article is so insightful about the importance of networks and relationships–I have had some great experiences with “strategically weaving connections” and wanted to share them as models to the importance and effectiveness of these networks.

    I am student at the University of Virginia and recently began a chapter of Challah for Hunger here, an organization that bakes and sells challah with proceeds going to charity. A couple months ago, I talked to members of the Hillel board here about the organization and one member, Ed Brownfield, asked me to meet with his friend who owns the Albemarle Baking Company in Charlottesville. He connected us through email and came to the meeting with me so I could share Challah for Hunger’s work. Jerry Newman, the owner of Albemarle Baking Company, graciously offered to donate all the dry ingredients to bake our challah at the meeting. Through my Hillel relationships and Ed’s Charlottesville connections, Ed was able to fuse his networks and connect me with an opportunity. This formed a new relationship, has alleviated our financial burden of buying all of the ingredients, and has allowed us to give more of our proceeds to charity.

    I also had a great experience with the weaving of “the knowledgeable and the curious” as you put it Adene. As a religious studies major I went to my advisor, Vanessa Ochs, last semester to discuss the following year. She asked me what I was interested in and I said Jewish non-profit work, specifically with a business and strategy focus. She enthusiastically began to tell me about a company called Darim Online, whose founder and president Lisa Colton is based in Charlottesville. She connected me with Lisa and I am now interning with Darim this year, learning much about Jewish non-profits and the value of networks. Vanessa was able to recognize my curiousness towards the Jewish non-profit world and use her knowledge about local organizations to connect me with a knowledgeable person in the social media strategy world.

    Networks created these opportunities and have pushed me to think about the ways organizations and individuals can utilize their networks to have a tremendous social impact– Thank you Adene!

  5. says

    For me – this is the impact quote above, “Today, two phenomena have changed the funding game. The scale and complexity of social issues coupled with the speed, transparency and constant participation demanded by digital technology has essentially upended our understanding of how to achieve impact. As funders, we must begin to understand the impact of these new realities on our ability to achieve our mission and implement the tools now at our disposal.”

    As a communications professional working with philanthropy & their grantees – this challenge is at the core of winning on our social change work.

    First, grantees and funders are challenged on all sides to meet the growing information appetite of constituencies.

    Second, each is wrestling with finding their own voice while simultaneously playing a contributing and collaborative role in the communications eco-sphere.

    Finally, its a balancing act to identify how to operate at high speed & transparency while still being intentional and having a “plan.”

    nicely done.

  6. says

    Adene, couldn’t agree more. Networks are transforming the way in we do business, but also the way in which we understand our identity and our community. It is imperative for funders and non profits to start thinking in a network mindset. For that, transparency, free flow of information and collaborative efforts are key. Networks are redefining much of our world.
    Jews have created networks for thousands of years (what is a “havruta” but a ‘network of learning’) and yet, our community seems to be lagging in this field. Kudos to the JJ foundation for taking the lead of this important and tranformative issue.