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Visualizing the Landscape of Action Networks: An Application of Social Network Analysis

In our last newsletter we reported on how we applied social network analysis (SNA) to identify influencers in online public health communications networks.  This month we report on another application of SNA in our project with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to understand influence in state and local public health Action Networks.  Action Networks are clusters of organizations that have committed to work together to take action towards a shared vision.  For instance, Eat Smart Move More North Carolina is an “action network” with over 60 agencies, associations, and other partner organizations committed to increasing opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity, wherever people live, learn, earn, play, and pray in the State of North Carolina.  The success of Eat Smart Move More depends on hundreds of people, organizations, and communities doing their part to create the conditions for people to eat smarter and move more.   Here are some characteristics of Action Networks:

  • They are are diverse and inclusive of multiple organizations and people who have a stake in creating a change.
  • They foster trust and accountability by weaving connections through personal relationships.
  • They use shared platforms to communicate and track progress.
  • They connect resources to catalyze and spread innovation.
  • They form a dense core of connections among people and organizations that have a shared purpose; and actively cultivate new connections to extend reach and influence, and foster innovation.

The cultivation of action networks can be supported by network mapping, social network analysis, and network weaving coaching and facilitation.  Check out the network weaving handbook by June Holley reviewed here.

In our project with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we applied social network analysis to understand how multiple public health action networks intersect and connect in North Carolina to find out which organizations and initiatives are positioned to have significant influence.  Through online research and interviews, we identified 34 community and public health initiatives, each with their own network of partner organizations.  We used this information to map connections among all the organizations that were partnering on those initiatives to see how well-connected the network is, where there are critical network hubs (e.g., organizations that bridge the network and increase the network’s overall alignment and extend its reach and influence), and where there are opportunities to strengthen connections to the periphery.

Below are two maps from our analysis of the public health action landscape in North Carolina.  As you can see this network landscape has a strong core of initiatives (square nodes) and organizations (circle nodes) that have overlapping membership, and are highly interconnected in the center of the map.  There are also organizations on the periphery that appear to be connected to the core through only one initiative (note the fan-shaped blue circles).  These organizations provide access to other networks, and offer new relationships ideas and resources to the core of the network.


By taking a closer look at the network core (those organizations that have more than one connection), we see a well-connected core with Eat Smart Move More in the center.  Eat Smart Move More has the highest bridging capacity of any initiative in the public health landscape of those that we included.  That means they can reach any node in the network along the shortest number of paths.  Other initiatives with high bridging capacity are Healthy Carolinians, the Institute for Emerging Issues, NC Action for Healthy Kids, and SmartStart. These are all network hubs because they connect to parts of the network that would otherwise be more disconnected from each other.


This type of network analysis and mapping can tell you a lot about which organizations and initiatives are connected and aligned with each other, where there are clusters working together, and where there are strategic opportunities to strengthen connections and alliances.  For instance, the Institute for Emerging Issues (IEI) has strong connections to initiatives and organizations focused on community and economic development  in rural areas.  If funders or other organizations have this knowledge, they can be strategic about how and when to connect with IEI.  

Funders can also look at how their grantees are positioned within a network ecosystem.  In the above example, the purple circles indicate current grantees, and the pink circles former grantees.  The current grantees are more centrally located in the action network.  This type of analysis could also be used to visualize where health funders are located in the network.  

While social network analysis is the process of collecting and mapping network data,  it’s power is in how members of the network can use this data to leverage relationships and resources for greater impact.  If you are interested in learning more about this approach, please don’t hesitate to contact us.