Generating ideas, connections, and action

Spark Case Study: A Network for Women Equality


Spark is a network of young people (millennials) who are invested in promoting equality for women throughout the world.  As a networked organization that operates primarily through the efforts of their volunteers (they only have one staff member), they use the power of networks to execute much of their programming.  The network was founded in 2004 by six young women that wanted to get involved with international women’s rights. Since then it has grown to engage over 5,000 people in the Bay Area, contributing over $1,000,000 in grants and pro-bono services to grassroots women’s organizations around the globe.  We had a chance to speak with Shannon Farley, Spark’s executive director, and explore some of the characteristics that make Spark a successful, empowering, networked organization.

  • Diversity: Spark’s member base is comprised of men and women of different ethnicities and professions. This spirit of diversity was cultivated from the beginning – the women that founded Spark all had different personal social networks, and since the network grew organically from their social networks, Spark members come from different backgrounds.

  • Engagement: “We believe in the power of networks. If you use a networked framework to engage people, you can maximize your investment. We wanted as many people as possible to participate in the process.” (Shannon Farley)  Spark encourages all of their members to participate in as many activities as possible, including joining the grant making committee, supporting advocacy efforts (signing petitions and contacting civic leaders), interacting with other members through social media channels, and participating in events such as volunteer days. But the network also leaves the boundaries open enough so members can “tap in and tap out” from activities based on their availability and interest.  That way, the network enjoys the full energy of those that truly want to participate in a given activity, without making others feel embarrassed or ashamed for not participating. 

  • Transparency and Open Leadership: Spark has a grants committee, comprised of Spark members, that decides which projects should be funded.  Initially, the board made the funding decisions, but the team realized that many members were interested in the grantmaking process. As members, they are investors in the organization, and thus it made sense to involve them at a deeper level.  This committee has over 100 members who solicit, vet and process applications. They debate and vote on which project receive Spark grants.
  • Cross-sector Collaboration: One of the underlying values of Spark is that collaboration across sectors produces more innovative and efficient solutions. For instance, a Spark member with experience in investment banking for municipal projects was instrumental in helping devise a more realistic strategy to improve a community radio project in Haiti.  “That’s the kind of expertise that traditional social sector organizations would disregard, in part due to biases against the private sector. At Spark, we think divisions between sectors should be blurred for efficiency.  And when you blur them, you create opportunities for leadership and engagement that weren’t available previously.” (Shannon Farley)
  •  Experimentation:  The Spark network places a high value on experimentation and learning.  One concrete example of experimentation is when they partnered with Stanford’s D.School to innovate their membership model; lessons learned that they continue to apply to their work and programming.  For instance, they realized that their target audience, millennials, wanted to both influence and be influence by the organizations they supported. So after every meeting, the Spark team started asking participants what they liked and what they would like to see changed “ It seems really simple, and something that social groups have been doing forever – evaluating what happens when we’re in a room – but the public nature of our process--requesting real-time verbal critique, publicizing the critique to the broader network and implementing the requested change by the next meeting date--shifted how members perceived their role in the organization. The act of public evaluations increased trust and buy-in. Additionally, it cultivated a culture of and environment for experimentation.” (Shannon Farley)


Spark provides members an opportunity to deepen their engagement with the cause – instead of simply attending an event or donating money, members can volunteer with grantee partners, mentor others, participate in grantmaking, and even join a delegation of members that visit grantees around the world to see the impact firsthand.  An example of a recent project funded by the network is The Chuacruz Women’s Weaving Cooperative, an organization comprised of Mayan artisan weavers in Guatemala.  The investment will provide a cash grant and pro-bono services designed to increase the women’s skills and production capacity, as well as, receive business training to help turn their work into a source for reliable income.


Spark is a pioneer in the way in which it operates using a network strategy.  As a network, the organization faces some challenges.  In particular, Shannon points out that the technology infrastructure has not kept up with the growth of the network. 


As foundations and organizations in the nonprofit sector are exploring networked models, understanding the challenges and opportunities of organizations that are operating as networks becomes increasingly important.  But many challenges and questions emerge – What is the best way to support networks? What technology and resources are needed to facilitate the growth of networks? How can we measure the impact and value, not only of the results, but also of the lasting connections that the members build through the network? How can organizations adapt their engagement strategies to create greater shared ownership?


We are exploring some of these questions in an upcoming piece about Leadership and Networks.  If you want to learn more and stay engaged in the conversation please visit Leadership for a New Era and/or contact us.