ONN’s Cathy Taylor and consultant Kris Cummings tackle the question of whether the network model is a good approach during times of crisis. The stories of three networks offer some practical experiences and yield some consistent, yet nuanced, lessons.
The COVID-19 pandemic launched us all into unknown territory beginning in 2020, and other emergencies are on the rise – climate change, growing income disparity and demand for services, systemic racism, increased polarization within our communities, and more. As we are still living and working through these moments that require our undivided attention, resources, and innovation, it is difficult to stop and reflect on what is working and how we need to adapt as a sector. But what is clear is that this is a time of disruption and there is a great opportunity to transform and emerge as a stronger sector, with more resilient organizations fostering and nurturing thriving communities.
The value proposition of the network model has never been more clear, but there is still so much to learn.
Over the last three years, the Ontario Nonprofit Network saw greater collaboration, an increased desire to work together, and decreased competition as organizations in our sector struggled to meet our missions in an ever-changing and challenging environment. And we experienced the value of networks ourselves: those in our network kept us in the loop, told us what was emerging, what supports and advocacy were needed. They joined forces on issues ranging from stabilization funding to liability insurance, staffing issues, and funding reform.
The value proposition of the network model has never been more clear, but there is still so much to learn about networks.
Four years ago, the Ontario Nonprofit Network and The Philanthropist collaborated on a series about the emergence, role, and strategic importance of networks in non-profit work, and just how much effort they require to live up to their potential and yield their many benefits.
Since then, we’ve experienced a global pandemic that has dramatically changed the ways in which we work and offer services, exacerbated inequities and complex community issues, and taken non-profits to the brink. The pandemic required non-profits to dramatically adapt their business models. Demand for services increased progressively beginning in 2020 and reached a peak in 2022, far outstripping available resources. And, growing inflation is increasing costs while revenues are decreasing, particularly as short-term pandemic resources end and philanthropic giving levels continue to decline. As we move forward, the repercussions of the last three years will reverberate and undoubtedly change how non-profits are structured and resourced.
As we move forward, the repercussions of the last three years will reverberate and undoubtedly change how non-profits are structured and resourced.
Recent literature, including articles published during the pandemic, yields consistent themes: the need for networked approaches since at least the 2008/2009 recession; collaborative approaches are more innovative and sustainable when addressing complex, interconnected social issues than single organizations; collaborative approaches to funding are necessary to address these issues and leverage co-operative advantages, especially within climates of austerity and constraint. Networks help organizations to better leverage resources, to respond to new, challenging circumstances, and to support vulnerable populations.
But are networks a good approach during times of crisis? What have we learned about the role of networks during crisis, and what might the future hold for networks as an approach to non-profit work? These questions have been getting attention for some time. Non-profits play large roles in responding to disasters and crises, and during these times they need the ability to adapt and function within uncertain and rapidly changing conditions, something that networks provide. Collaborative management and network approaches have been examined as an essential response to crises and pandemics since the SARS and avian influenza outbreaks. Non-profits in one COVID-19 study found that the pandemic spurred a greater degree and speed of collaboration than they had ever experienced. And recently, an analysis of more than 150 articles on non-profit management strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic found that collaboration was one of five key strategies of interest to both academics and practitioners.
Three networks during the COVID-19 pandemic
The stories of three networks offer some practical experiences of working within a network model during a time of crisis and yield some consistent, yet nuanced, lessons about using a networked approach:
- Building a robust collaborative culture of shared leadership takes persistence, time, and practice, perhaps especially when stakes are high.
- A compelling, shared purpose is necessary to maintain collaboration, and it must evolve and keep pace with changing conditions.
- A network can move fast to access greater support and resources for its members’ work, including from specialized response funds.
- Enabling supports aren’t a luxury – they are a necessity.
Cambridge Neighbourhood Organizations
Cambridge Neighbourhood Organizations (CNO) is a network of community development organizations in Cambridge, Ontario. In 2018, CNO recognized that the service environment was increasingly complex, and changing rapidly, and that the sector was using networks to build scope and agility to respond to need and support the missions of participating organizations. To proactively develop their collaborative capability and advance their shared community-development purpose, CNO undertook a capacity-building project from 2019 to 2021.
CNO’s journey was to learn, practise, and do. First, they learned what was needed to lay a groundwork of common purpose; they built their knowledge of shared leadership, distributed action, mindsets for continuous change, and methods for ongoing adaptation and strategy management. Next, they tested and adapted new tools and frameworks for managing their shared work together, delegated to play to each other’s strengths, and took first steps to implement shared systems and strategies while facing the discomfort of relinquishing control. Finally, they saw some first, tangible results: they built new shared operational systems (e.g., project and grants management), enhanced their strategic position as a network (e.g., shared marketing), and built a common model of community development and staffing.
The challenges along the way reflected the impact of external events and the massive culture change that underscores the evolution to a fully collaborative network.
This journey was nuanced and complicated. As it made deliberate progress toward collaborative strategy and shared capacity, CNO was rocked by external events. A funding crisis and successive waves of COVID-19 sent shock waves through their environment. At each occurrence, members instinctively felt compelled to disengage and direct focus to their individual organizations. They knew that responding as a network could generate greater capacity, in theory, but struggled to do it with agility in periods of instability. Through successive shocks, CNO developed greater adaptive resilience – regrouping, recommitting to shared leadership, and formulating a new path forward more quickly after each shock.
This work reflected an arc of growth and advancement, marked by moments of retreat and setback, recovered with persistence to regroup, refocus, and resume. The challenges along the way reflected the impact of external events and the massive culture change that underscores the evolution to a fully collaborative network – it’s not easy to overcome the single-organization mindsets that have been instilled in us for decades. CNO’s resilience represents the values, skills, and behaviours of a new collaborative culture that can take hold.
Community Coordination Plan
The Community Coordination Plan (CCP) consists of 12 non-profit service agency clusters, convened by United Way Greater Toronto and the City of Toronto. The CCP enabled collaboration and rapid reaction to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on local people, with a focus on equity-deserving communities. It did so by maintaining both a local and city-wide focus and fostering open communication; shared decision-making; collaborative and coordinated service planning and implementation; learning and scaling; and rapid, ongoing, local response to need.
As the pandemic shifted, and as communities focused on recovering and rebuilding, the CCP looked to its future. The CCP model has clear strengths that can be retained and amplified for identifying and responding to urgent and emerging community need, while continuing to centre partnership and equity, going forward. In late 2022, the CCP undertook a strategic learning project to examine its shared purpose, enabling supports, and structure and to adapt to a post-pandemic future. In particular, two considerations stand out.
Stakeholders highlight the indisputable importance of backbone or enabling supports.
First, that compelling, clear, shared purpose is essential and will evolve from the urgent-response focus that was shared by partners during the pandemic. The CCP demonstrated the ability to provide fast non-profit service response to community during a time of crisis. Partners identified that the shared need to respond quickly provided a burning platform that maintained engagement in the work. And second, stakeholders highlight the indisputable importance of backbone or enabling supports: convening and facilitation; connection to funding opportunities; operational and core supports for evaluation, communication, and collaborative capacity; and system navigation to bridge and link to other systems and address barriers to service response – all are essential.
The evolving future-state envisioned for the CCP now defines a common purpose for ongoing collaborative service response, centring partnership and equity, to continually support emerging local needs and urgent city-wide crises in the future. And the backbone supports that are envisioned will fuel networked action and support the clusters (networks) of organizations to develop long-term shared leadership and collaborative capacity as their vision evolves from the shorter-term, urgent focus of the pandemic to longer-term responsiveness to emerging need and future crises.
From Poverty to Possibility Network
From Poverty to Possibility is a network of seven non-profits in Guelph, Ontario. The network is supported and funded in part by United Way Guelph Wellington Dufferin. Individually, partners have a focus on food security, housing security, income security, or a combination of these elements. As a network they share an interest in weaving together supports and opportunities, for people living with low incomes, to increase well-being through meeting basic needs and achieving income security. The network has collaborated, with occasional pauses, for about four years.
Early on, the network took stock of each partner’s work and the barriers to income security and basic needs that they observed community members experiencing. They imagined how they might work collectively to increase access to services and opportunities in their community to improve food and housing security.
This planning was supported by facilitators and included sometimes difficult conversations, development of a theory of change, and exercises in shared budgeting. Network members flag that collaboration is not easy and that it takes persistent effort. Yet it yields greater trust, deeper relationships, and greater clarity of what the network could accomplish. Partners have talked about these conditions as greater readiness to collaborate, and they credit this readiness to the effort they invested in the earlier years of their work together.
Network members flag that collaboration is not easy and that it takes persistent effort. Yet it yields greater trust, deeper relationships, and greater clarity of what the network could accomplish.
In early 2023, the network’s efforts paid off. Based on their relationships, trust, and shared clarity of what they could do together, the network was ready to respond when a time-limited opportunity to access funds arose. They were able to quickly and nimbly access a source of national pandemic-related recovery funding. They knew what they wanted to do, and who would do what. And they had the pre-established trust and relationship to organize quickly. The partners’ efforts as a network left them with greater readiness to access support, and use that support to make change in their community.
From these stories, we highlight four experiences of working in networks during a time of crises that are consistent with literature produced during the recent pandemic:
- Building a robust collaborative culture of shared leadership takes time and practice. Sharing leadership and authority, especially when stakes are high, is counterintuitive to traditional leadership models and structures. Networks need to be ready to regroup, check in on shared purpose and recommit, and persevere with shared leadership.
- A compelling, shared purpose is necessary to maintain collaboration, and it must evolve. It will help drive commitment. And it will evolve, as time passes, in order to remain relevant to the environment. A network’s evolving shared purpose has to be strong enough to continue to make the case to invest in collaboration.
- A network can move fast to access greater support and resources for its members’ work. Building a clear plan (theory of change), including who will implement what; having sometimes difficult conversations; and spending time planning and thinking together takes effort but yields greater relationship, trust, clarity, resources, and other ingredients to create readiness and impact than working alone.
- Enabling supports aren’t a luxury – they are a necessity. Convening, facilitation, access to funding for collaborative work, communications, shared learning and evaluation, and more, are all necessary for networks to function and succeed. The promise of networks is greater impact, perhaps especially during times of crises – and, networks require fuel and support to function.
Each has some nuance and greater urgency, based upon the context of a time of crises, yet will feel familiar to non-profits working in networks.
Networks moving forward
Looking forward from the experiences of networks over the last 15 years, and as the sector looks beyond the pandemic, the non-profit environment is likely to be characterized by increased need, reduced resources, and the necessity of making collaborative approaches work. We can see that:
- non-profits are increasingly acting in networks, because they know that they cannot adapt fast enough, individually, to meet changing needs or serve their individual missions.
- leaders and boards are learning to embrace strategies and practices that foster interdependence – including decentralized leadership and action, relationships and engaging across differences – and finding paths to trust, reciprocity, and mutual accountability, and
- funders and policy-makers are anticipated to focus even more on funding networks and issues and to form and act within networks themselves.
For at least 15 years, the non-profit sector has approached, and considered, a turning point where focus and priorities must shift to issues and missions, rather than individual organizations. The potential of networks to meet complex community needs and serve individual organization missions both outside and within times of crises is being demonstrated in both literature and practical experience. With the necessary culture, adaptive shared purpose, collaborative readiness, and sufficient enabling investment, networks are an effective, viable, and increasingly attractive model to meet this moment.
The authors would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article: Lori Da Cunha, Samantha Esmeralda, Emily Jaarsma, and Joe-Ann McComb at Cambridge Neighbourhood Organizations; Juneeja Varghese, Rebecca Wallace, Alex Dow, and John Smith at the Community Coordination Plan; Tom Armitage, Jaya James, and Colleen Murdoch at From Poverty to Possibility Network; and Suhanya Ketheeswaran at Build with Empathy.