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The Barr Fellowship Network Case Study

Every two years, experienced, values-driven nonprofit executive directors leading organizations in Boston, focused on education, the environment, the arts, housing, human services and youth, are nominated and selected as Barr Fellows. The fellowship is a prize that comes with a three month sabbatical, two retreats per year and an opportunity to engage in activities with the Barr Fellows Network. It is a prize for people who have devoted their lives to social change, and who are skillful organizational leaders filled with passion and purpose. Since 2005, 48 nonprofit leaders have received the Fellowship award; over 60% are leaders of color.

The overarching vision for the Barr Fellows Program is a thriving nonprofit sector with diverse, strong, and connected leadership that is having a positive impact on the quality of civic life in Boston. One goal is to nurture strong connections among a diverse group of leaders who work in different neighborhoods and on different issues so that they can create authentic, honest, and accountable relationships with one another.

The conditions for authentic relationships are seeded through an initial learning journey that is meant to be a significantly disruptive experience. Twelve executive directors are plucked out the mad rush of their day-to-day lives. They are sent on a learning journey somewhere in the global south (Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti). This encounter with significantly different social spaces, with very different levels of hope and despair, a different climate and ecological experience, an intense pace coupled with well facilitated moments of shared reflection create the conditions for deep connection and personal and collective transformation. Usually, relationships among leaders are mediated by organizational roles and identities, and are often limited to the transactional and the formal. The learning journey breaks through this layer of relationship into a more intimate space, a deeper and more human connection that creates more room for self-revelation and builds trust.

Trust builds living networks that are highly resilient, flexible and efficient. People who trust each other more easily forgive each other for the bumps that inevitably arise from working together. That’s network resilience. When people trust each other, it’s easier to respond to change in a smart, coordinated way. That’s network flexibility. Trust also reduces red tape, which lowers the cost of collaboration. That’s network efficiency... (Gideon Rosenblatt, Trust and Networks)

Trusting relationships among Barr Fellows results in a reservoir of social capital which produces enormous community value. Here’s one example: When the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) led an effort to win a Promise Neighborhood grant for Boston, it had very little time to pull together the proposal. The social capital among Barr Fellows was a critical factor that contributed to DSNI’s proposal receiving the highest score among all PromiseNeighborhood planning grants that were awarded. DSNI’s ED, John Barros, called the former ED of the Children’s Museum, Lou Casagrande (both Barr Fellows in 2007) to ask for his help securing memoranda of understanding (MOUs) from 15 of the city’s museums. The museum directors had little or no knowledge of John or DSNI, but they did know Lou. As a respected colleague in the museum world, Lou could vouch for John to his colleagues. The success of Lou’s efforts to secure these MOUs in a matter of weeks, was only possible because of the trust and social capital the Fellowship created.

Participation in the Barr Fellows Network is voluntary. The Barr Foundation has no pre-existing expectations about how leadership will connect or what Fellows do or will accomplish together. By offering opportunities for connection, reflection and learning they create the conditions for emergence. Emergence is how change happens in nature.

In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level (Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale)

Network emergence takes time. Mapping connections over time and uncovering and telling the stories as they emerge demonstrate the power and potential of the network to be a transformative force for the nonprofit sector in the City of Boston. One Fellow reflects,

The Barr Fellows are an unprecedented network of people that in a lifetime most of us would never be able to pull together and become that close to. This network transcends fields, gender, race to a level that wouldn’t be doable on one’s own. This level of partnership and camaraderie breaks down fears and inhibitions; it’s going to save our sector. (A Barr Fellow)