Generating ideas, connections, and action

Networking a City

In the summer 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Marianne Hughes and Didi Goldenhar have written a case study on the Barr Fellows Network, entitled Networking a City.  It describes a seven year investment in seasoned nonprofit executive directors to reinvigorate their leadership and create environments for them to form authentic relationships with each other that spur innovation and transform Boston’s social sector to become more highly collaborative and mission-driven.  The assumption is that if diverse leaders in the social sector form authentic, trusting relationships, then they will find creative, innovative ways to tap their collective assets for greater social benefit.  
But how do you know this is happening?  What do you look for?  Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of working with Barr Foundation and IISC staff to develop a  logic model for the Barr Fellowship Program, and conduct their network assessment.  We have sometimes called the logic model an “intention model” because it sets a course for the fellowship and the network, without having specific expectations about what (if anything) will be achieved.  Our goal has been to track how the relationships are growing and changing over time, and what has happened as a result. Here are the three desired network outcomes:

1. The development of authentic honest relationships with each other, and with the foundation staff, and learning and facilitation partners
2. Greater sharing of ideas, advice-seeking, personal support and collaboration among members of the network that benefits the community
3. Increased social capital that spurs innovation and transforms Boston’s social sector to be highly collaborative and mission-driven

We have used two approaches to assess the network and its effects:  social network analysis and storytelling.  Used together these two methods are a powerful way to understand the structure and health of the network, where connection and collaboration is taking place, and what fellows are doing together that supports them personally as leaders, and contributes significantly to improving the quality of civic life in the City of Boston.

Social network analysis has been particularly helpful for assessing idea sharing, advice-seeking, personal support and collaboration in the network as a whole.  Through annual network surveys, we have seen the network move from a hub and spoke model with the Barr Foundation staff at the center to a multi-hub network with a strong interconnected core of fellows that regularly connect and work together (see the article for the visuals).

The storytelling process involves conducting interviews with fellows and occasionally with other allies (who are not Barr Fellows) to understand  when and where critical connections were made that set in motion events that led, for instance, to the successful creation of the Margarita Muniz Academy - the first bilingual high school in Boston.

Assessing the network and its impact is a work in progress.  We continue to experiment with new ways of collecting and analyzing data that enable us to make comparisons over time.  One of the biggest challenges is cataloguing and managing the significant amounts of data we collect, and developing visualizations that show how networks evolve over time.  What strategies have you developed to manage large amounts of network data?  Have you used any software to dynamically visualize network data over time?  If so, I’d love to hear from