How to build a network: Lessons from SIX

In groups we can do together what we cannot achieve alone. With networks and new computer-based tools, ordinary people can now become a group even without the benefit of a corporation or organisation. They can make decisions, own and sell assets, accomplish tasks by exploiting the technology available. They no longer need to rely on a politician to make decisions. They can exercise meaningful power themselves about national, state and local—indeed global—issues.

Beth Simone Noveck

What is a network and how do you nurture it?

NPQ Quarterly article, A Network Way of Working, defines networks as:

Networks consist of entities (nodes) in relationship with one another and the flows (ties) that exist between them. These ties can be thought of as conduits or channels. The network is made up, then, not only of connected entities but of the stuff that is transferred between and among them, creating a “circulation of” and evolution of meaning.

There are hundreds of articles and toolkits explaining how to establish and run networks. Although these provide valuable tips, they don’t alway tell the full story. In the sea of information and guides, it’s easy to lose the sight of a vital factor: that – networks are ultimately all about people, relationships and trust.

At SIX, we have developed a unique and particular way to connect people across boundaries – geographical, cultural, and sectors.  This piece, will share some of the key lessons we learned through our experience.

One way to explain SIX’s perspective is through what a good network is not.

Firstly, a good network is not just an online forum, it is not a newsletter, or a website with the right filters and thousands of case studies; a network has to be a community. A community of like-minded individuals who may  have different foci or ways of working,  but who are all still trying to achieve the same end goals or vision. A network is not just a label.  

The best way to explain more about our approach to networks – and what a network actually is in practice –  is through telling our story, from how we started, how we are growing, and what we are learning.

How we started:

SIX was created at a breakfast meeting in Beijing 10 years ago with a core group of people whose diversity still reflect the make up of SIX today. From the beginning, this small group agreed to work together to connect innovators across the world and add value to the  emerging field of social innovation.  They agreed that this group should be people with shared values, not just those with the money or power.

SIX was incubated at the Young Foundation in the UK for its first few years. In 2010, at our annual Summer School, a slightly bigger core group of fifteen people  came together to discuss the potential and future of SIX. Three of the fifteen offered to work together to develop options for how SIX could be governed: Tonya Surman of the Centre for Social Innovation in Canada, Andrew Barnett of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in the UK, and Jon Huggett of the UK. Their ideas  were shared amongst the group and we collectively decided a way forward. You can find a copy of their governance paper here. This setup remains the same today. 

Despite being set up as a single legal entity, SIX is run like a cooperative. The secretariat remains small and nimble and doesn’t search for power or status. The job of the SIX team is to make the lives of the SIX community easier, connecting them to who or what they need. We promote the voices of the network, not our own. Decision making and direction is decentralised as much as possible and we always put the network’s needs as first priority. As such, we don’t push our brand and often people don’t know we are behind our activities. Prime examples are The Unusual Suspects Festival, which we developed with Collaborate in London and have now replicated around the UK, and the EU-funded Social Innovation Community (SIC), where we played a key role in putting together the consortium and now hold the network together.

How we are growing:

SIX has grown slowly and organically. There remains a core group of committed people who are proud to be part of the network, even though they are now working in different organisations, fields, and countries. We have involved the network in designing how the network grows. Whilst we have around 15,000 people signed up to our newsletter; we have a more committed group of a few thousand that keep coming back. That said, we measure our impact not only in numbers, but in the value of the relationships that are created at and through SIX.

Rather than growing a large secretariat, we have developed small clusters and nodes, either around regions, like SIX Asia, or types of organisation and ways of working, like funders. Each group has its own dynamic and business model, growing naturally  and adapting in response to the needs of our global community

For example, our Funders Node, which started with a core group of 6 funders and a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has taken around 2 years to evolve into  a group of around 30 foundations who now engage intensely  as peers. We supported funders to invite other foundations who have a similar mindset, to build a group of peers based around shared values. You can read more about the process and development of the SIX Funders Node here.  In comparison, we launched SIX in Asia with the Mayor of Seoul in 2013 and today hundreds of people in Asia come together to host annual meetings, each one  hosted by different organisations  in the region on different themes. It is a much looser network, but is still adding unique value, rooted in innovation, practice and connection.

How we work

Physical meetings and events have been key to the way we work, always in partnership with another organisation. We bring our unique approach to different contexts. We hosted the annual Summer school in Seoul in 2013, in partnership with Seoul Metropolitan Government. We were invited by the Mayor of Seoul to host the event. We worked closely with his team for 5 months on every part of the process, and therefore introduced a new way of working and thinking, from how to  planning an event based on collaboration, in a new kind of physical space to helping the Mayor of Seoul encourage social innovation across government departments. Comparatively, our recent event in Colombia in 2016 worked with grassroots community organisations on the theme of social innovation in divided societies, a particularly raw topic given that the event was held two days after the Colombian people voted against the peace referendum. The gathering needed to be designed in a very sensitive way, working closely with local organisations to make the most of the global participants and their perspectives. Site visits were carefully curated, culturally appropriate, and co-designed with the  Colombian organisation 100 in a Day. Our global participants  knitwound wool into pavements and gave flowers and words of hope to protesters. There were tears. One of the Colombian participants told a story that she said she would never feel comfortable telling an only Colombian audience ( LINK)

Whether we are working with foundations, governments, large INGOs or community organisations, we work in the same way. Everyone is treated the same, no matter age, status or organisational position. Wherever the event, whatever the size, a few things need to happen.

  • Event preparation for SIX is not about logistics. It is a time consuming process based on understanding people, their values and their motivation. We choose who to invite very carefully to make sure there are  a mix of perspectives. We speak to every person before they come and design the agenda around them.  We think creatively about space, the use of furniture, and perspective.
  • During the event, we dont only focus on timing and content. We ensure that people meet the right people and have a conversation they didn’t know they needed to have. It is about practical experience, visiting carefully selected projects and people, and creating meaningful exchanges at every moment possible.
  • After the event is the most important part of the network building experience – we need to ensure people continue to build on the relationships they started. This does not mean swapping cards. This means continuing to connect people, calling participants as a way of getting feedback, and continuing to build relationships. After our events, it is notable that participants want to continue to spend time together – often staying for lunch as a group or organising activities together, despite having spent the last few days with each other.

The stuff in between:

It’s the stuff in between the regular communications and events that really matter. That’s where you create the glue that make the network sticky, which means that people come back to find each other and find community. The SIX team often act as therapists or coaches. We spend a lot of the day talking to people. We are constantly thinking about who could help who, not just because their areas of work are similar, but because their values or stages of development are aligned.

Ultimately, it is our core values that keep SIX together. Our values are not just a nice list of hopes or words the website, they guide our work every day.

  • Value social impact (rather than ideas)
  • Celebrate solutions (more than heroes)
  • Engage honestly (more than just inform)
  • Inspire through action (not just words)
  • Connect as peers (not in a hierarchy)
  • Committed to openness (and welcome the unexpected)

Trust and relationships are key. Communities are a place where you can go to find your peers who,when they come together, can help you find the missing piece in your puzzle. Often, this means someone that asks the right question at the right moment that makes you think differently and helps you reframe your argument. It is that key connection that unlocks doors. It’s your opportunity to engage with another part of the world.

No-one is forgotten. Whether someone has attended a training, a workshop, or a done an interview for the website, they are not forgotten by SIX. If someone comes to a training, we often invite them to an event or ask them to contribute content for the website. We see all activities as central to network development, not as stand alone inputs.

The effect of a strong network

Whilst the impact of a network is hard to measure, a strong network can be powerful. For us, depth of relationships are more important than numbers; relationship are more meaningful, more impactful, and longer-lasting. The friendships and relationships that SIX has contributed to brokering over the past decade have since blossomed into partnerships and  new organisations; they’ve, helped frame new laws, influence policy, design and implement new funds.  Ultimately they have helped to advance innovation across the world, and have contributed to a more organised field.

As more and more organisations start to develop their own networks, questions about how to make decisions and how to look at ownership come to the fore. The most powerful insight we’ve gained is how to respond to these questions:  with clear values. If the people in your network don’t share and sign up to your values, it’s unlikely to be sustainable. Values are what makes SIX.

Go further

If you want to learn more about networks, these are some resources that we find particularly helpful:

Want to know more
This piece is based on experience, on nuance and on relationships. It was a collaborative effort, developed from our shared experiences over the past decade and numerous continents. After hosting 60+ events on 6 continents and working with hundreds of organisations, we think we have some experience and credibility when it comes to relationship building and a unique approach to building a community.  If you want to know more about our work, or how we work, or if you want us to help you in starting your own network and designing meetings, please get in touch with us.