What is the power of networks in philanthropy? Reflections from SIX

Having worked for an international exchange for almost 5 years, I can attest firsthand to the power of networks. Networks help us to navigate our daily life (whether in the workplace or at home), providing much needed inspiration and success stories, new connections and personal relationships, whilst expanding our learning and horizons.  

I’ve thought carefully about the benefits of networks and more following a recent gathering hosted by the Bosch International Alumni Centre Berlin exploring how philanthropic institutions can best build and connect networks for positive impact.

The following reflections stuck with me throughout the evening, building on SIX’s 10 year experience and our recent strategy and communications work we’ve pursued throughout the past year:  

  • Language is key. Do we mean networks? Community? Or exchange? At SIX, we have purposefully moved away from calling ourselves a network, and we now focus SIX as an exchange. We believe that an exchange better captures the essence of our the people who are part of what we do, built on mutual value, relationships and knowledge. My small group at the gathering in Berlin rejected the language of network, repurposing it as community – a term we all felt was less transactional and more systemic.
  • Why the obsession with networks? It can seem at times (at least in the social impact world) that everyone is intent on building a new network. But why, and what for? What will that new network add to the existing plethora of networks and communities that already exist? What is its purpose? With a room full of funders at the event being asked to question what the power of networks could be, I would stress that it is critical we stop reinventing the wheel. Networks are already all around us. Identify what other networks you may already be a part of and think about how to positively leverage them. For philanthropy – this could be:
    • Networks of philanthropy (e.g. a room full of funders)
    • Networks with philanthropy (e.g. partnerships that involve funders, the government, NGOs, etc)
    • Networks by philanthropy (e.g. alumni associations that foundations create of previous grantees)

Perhaps the question should instead be how to network more effectively.

  • The importance of trust and values. At SIX, we’ve been clear about our values since day one. These are reflective of the social innovation field in general but they guide our work and approach in everything that we do.  We believe that this has been key to building a global community built on trust over the past decade. We realise this is unique as we’ve seen many networks fizzle out due to a lack of trust and shared values. This was highlighted at the event –  Walter Binnestein – Bachstein of the Community Arts Lab spoke through the view of the arts and highlighted that the artistic process was one of the most powerful in building trust as you had to let go, make yourself vulnerable and deeply connect with others in a form of co-creation. Another fellow participant in Berlin was so moved by the principles of co-creation, radical inclusion and decommodification and community cooperation found in places like Burning Man where the community truly co-creates together that he’s been trying to install these values into social innovation for years.
  • Self-organising vs. a backbone. A key conversation at the event in Berlin was if there was a need for a backbone organisation or if a network could self-organise and sustain itself, with two distinct camps forming at the event. At SIX, we strongly believe that a network is more than a newsletter and without a proper support, it’s easy to see when other work and life gets in the way. This can be called a backbone organisation, an organisation is financially supported to maintain the momentum and support the growth of the network. At SIX, we play this role with our global peer-to-peer exchange for philanthropic foundations, called the SIX Funders Node. This is an area where philanthropy can play a role, in supporting these important actors. With self-organising networks, there at least needs to be strong motivations and incentives for engagement, as highlighted by Shermin Voshmgir of the WU Wien Research Institute for Crypto Economics, when speaking about bitcoin as the financial incentive in participating and contributing to decentralised peer to peer network.

The purpose of the gathering was to explore how philanthropy can strengthen networks, and how networks could strengthen philanthropy. As Tim Draimin of the McConnell Foundation and SIX Board member said in his closing remarks, networks can help to unlock more opportunities within foundations, highlight more tools, and disrupt traditional ways of thinking.

At SIX we believe that philanthropic foundations are key actors in supporting environments for social innovation to thrive. They can support critical players, like networks, over long time periods – helping to invest in social capital to share knowledge and best practice. We’re excited to share more from our own experience to better enable philanthropy in this work.