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 networksguide.wikispaces.com