When a Scarf Should Be a Scarf: Organizations and Network-Weaving

by Deborah Fishman

Increasing buzz around networks and their power to influence people, draw out passion and excitement, and spread ideas has left numerous Jewish organizations wondering: What bearing do these concepts have for us? And if this is relevant – what should we do?

In the recently concluded network-weaver training pilot HaReshet, I worked with Jewish organizations to explore exactly that. My experiences emphasized the unique nature of established organizations – even those which easily converse with those outside of their walls and are tech- and social media-savvy – when compared with grassroots networks.

Networks surround us, and there are many kinds. Some exist for social and “networking” purposes. Organizations can and do help foster these kinds of networks. However, there is a role for network-weaving as a means to help organizations better achieve their missions. While grassroots efforts can profoundly impact cause-based issues, nonprofit organizations play an important and unique role in the Jewish sphere, as well as generally in society. Nonprofits are often the most effective way to provide critical social and educational services. They can serve as vital hubs in the community, particularly for the storing and transmittal of information, data and communal memory. Network-weaving is one strategy that can help organizations not only survive in the networked age, but also actually better serve in these critical roles for our community. But to execute network-weaving effectively, it will have to be approached as is appropriate in an organizational context.

Let’s look at this through a metaphor. Just like the physical act of weaving, network-weaving is made up of lots of different threads (or people), linked together through the purposeful act of weaving (or through forming meaningful relationships) to make a beautiful piece of craftsmanship (or a community). Now let’s say that you are a skilled craftsman embarking on the creation of a new item. What is it going to be? If you are an independent entrepreneur, or if you are weaving for fun, you may start weaving just because you love the thread, without a particular product in mind, and see what emerges as it goes (grassroots weaving). Or, you may head toward a scarf, only to find that the weaving starts speaking to you in a different way and it ends up as a hat. If you are a weaver for a company (or organization) which produces scarves – you probably know all along that the resulting object better be a scarf.

In short, the root of the uniqueness of network-building for organizations is that they are a) mission-driven; and b) go about achieving this mission within an organizational context.

Being mission-driven means that organizations have specific and explicit goals from the get-go as to what their work in the community is seeking to accomplish. For instance, organizational missions represented in HaReshet include: supporting established day schools using online and blended learning (DigitalJLearning) and generating Jewish educational research that is properly funded, beneficial to, and well-used in the field (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education – CASJE). As with any strategy organizations may be considering, network-weaving should be undertaken only if and in a way that can help achieve their goals.

The necessity to focus on goals and results plays out in what needs to be done to build the network. We all know that relationship-building is time-consuming, and takes time to develop. In a mission-driven organization, time is a precious resource, to be deployed where it will have the maximum impact on generating results for that mission. Therefore, an organization must network-weave in a strategic way. This means focusing relationship-building efforts on those who are both passionate and can most effectively achieve the mission – such as Ramah alumni for Reshet Ramah, Hebrew language teachers for TaL AM, or heads of schools who have participated in the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) for the DSLTI alumni network (to use more HaReshet examples).

The fact that the organization should expect and require these strategic efforts to actually lead to results necessitates mission-driven network-weavers to undertake a careful balancing act. They need to engage network members in a way that empowers, excites, and concretely benefits them. At the same time, they must remain focused on the intersection between possible engagement activities and those that will advance the organization’s agenda. If done properly, this kind of network-weaving has the potential to leverage the time, skills, and resources of those outside the organization to achieve more than those inside the organization can currently.

Network-weaving within an organizational context must also contend with a host of questions affecting its process which need to be addressed differently than they would in a grassroots context. For instance, personnel: amongst a staff infrastructure, whose role is it, exactly, to be the organizational network-weaver? In HaReshet, four out of six of the organizations found that multiple staff were implicated and therefore involved a team of two or more in this work. For instance, the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) benefited from the participation of Debbie Feinstein, who has a deep knowledge of the JNTP network from her longtime involvement leading programming, as well as Yael Bailey, who handles its communications and database work. Aside from supporting network-weaving strategies from multiple perspectives, the added benefit of this approach is the ability to apply the concepts of network-weaving to the organization internally: creating opportunities for learning together, information-sharing, and ultimately synergy amongst staff.

Another point of departure from the grassroots perspective is around the issue of trust and control. Organizations build themselves as credible institutions by having high standards and clear messages apparent throughout their work in the community. For network-weaving to help uphold and communicate these messages requires thought about: What will be the approval and oversight process for this work to make sure it stays on message and on mission? What should be the role of leadership? How will metrics be tracked and regularly reviewed in order to determine whether the network-weaving work is actually helping to accomplish the organization’s mission?

Network-weaving can be a highly valuable strategy for an organization to engage and activate people – and achieve concrete results. As with any other strategy, it begs careful consideration in all stages of its planning and implementation. In subsequent posts, HaReshet participants and chevruta partners will be sharing some of the lessons they have learned through this work. I look forward to hearing from others in the field as well as they experiment in this arena.

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

Cross-posted on the AVI CHAI Foundation Blog.