Network-Weaving: Why You Should Take That Risk

by Deborah Fishman

In Hayim Herring’s recent article on network-weaving, he suggests organizations take a close look at their mission and governance so as to mitigate the risk that network-weaving will not be successful. I certainly agree that a clear articulation of an organization’s cause can inspire a grassroots network to action. I also agree that the organization’s structure critically informs its work, and – particularly if it is hierarchical – has the potential to be a roadblock to a network’s decentralized, fast-paced efforts.

On the other hand, the fact remains that many large, long-established Jewish organizations serving our community currently do have widely encompassing mission statements, arguably due to their wide-ranging work. Many also do have hierarchies, some as a result of their long histories and the era in which they were founded, or else as a management philosophy. While it is important to be aware of these factors in an organization, this does not mean they cannot benefit from network-weaving.

In HaReshet, a network-weaving training program working with grantees of The AVI CHAI Foundation which I wrote about here, I have spoken of network-weaving as one strategy that can help organizations achieve goals. It need not be employed in all the aspects of their work which are covered in their mission statements. It is rather about unlocking the potential of relationships – of mobilizing volunteers or members – to increase involvement and enrich the results in certain areas of the work. While it is hard to get all constituents excited about everything all the time, it is possible to get constituents passionate about something achievable – and then to achieve it. For instance, HaReshet participant Gary Hartstein at DigitalJLearning – an initiative under the auspices of the Jewish Education Project – has the goal of helping Jewish day schools implement online/blended learning. This goal could be achieved solely through Gary working one-on-one with each school. But Gary is also using networked strategies such as cultivating leadership amongst schools who have useful experiences to share, particularly around a specific topic within online/blended learning.

Likewise, network-weavers need to understand an organization’s overall structure – and to get buy-in for using a networked strategy in a particular area or aspect of the work. It is also critical to build in check-in points where organizations can assess the work and its alignment with the organization as a whole.

While organizational factors may pose risks to network-weaving, I actually find that a major danger to network-weaving is the failure to take the risk to try it to begin with. This idea is described best by Miriam Brosseau, HaReshet chevruta partner (coach) of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE), and Lisa Colton, chevruta partner of TaL AM, who talk about the concept of “na’aseh v’nishmah,” translated as “We will do, and then we will listen/understand.” Just as the Jewish people accepted the Torah with these words, the best way to learn how to network-weave is probably to dive in and try it yourself. After obtaining the support of your organization, you can start with small, low risk steps at first and evaluate what works, and what does not. Then, you can build on that to understand: Where is your organization’s structure a sticking point for your network, and what can you do to work within that structure to achieve results? What is it about your mission that is most exciting and inspiring to your constituency? While such questions can be discussed in the abstract, the practical reality of engaging in network-weaving may give you the answers you seek. You just need to make sure you keep asking the questions as you engage in the work.

Last week TaL AM – a Hebrew language and Jewish studies curriculum – launched their Facebook group for their curricular users to connect with one another. In one day, they reached 250% of their goal in number of group members. It seems Hebrew teachers are hungry for this opportunity to meet online and share resources with each other – and they wouldn’t have known unless they tried.

Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications for The AVI CHAI Foundation.