Leadership in a Networked Age

The popularity of social networking technologies, particularly social media, has created opportunities and challenges for nonprofit organizations. Social networks have allowed organizations to reach more people, faster and to collaborate in new ways on building networks and movements for change. At the same time, the rapid changes in technology have also meant that legacy organizations have had to move quickly to adapt, or experience the frustration on not keeping up. The social media revolution has also left funders looking for new solutions to the old, but increasingly pressing, problem of capacity development for legacy organizations.

In this blog post I’m going to look how the rise shift in technology had led to a renewed focus on leadership development and the quest for a skilled networked leader.

Social Justice 2.0

One funder that has led the way in mapping what it will take for NPOs to to flourish in the age of social media is the Levis Strauss Foundation (LSF). In 2010, just as the conversation about networked nonprofits was gaining traction, LSF developed a related model, Social Justice 2.0 — a play on Web 2.0, the tech shift that necessitated this shift in perspective.

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Like the networked nonprofit, Social Justice 2.0 describes a world in which organizations focus on empowering their networks, dialogue trumps monologue, and collaboration is the norm. What is particularly intriguing about LSF’s model, however, is the centrality of leaders to its theory of change. Leaders skilled in social media and collaboration can transform organizations, networks and movements.

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Investing in Leadership Development

In 2010, LSF launched a five-year experiment in capacity development called the Pioneers of Justice program. The program focused on five executive directors of legacy nonprofits in SF.  As part of the Pioneers in Justice cohort, the EDs participated in training in social media, collaboration, storytelling. LSF also invested in benchmarking and upgrading IT infrastructure and social media capacity of each participating organization. Finally, the initial grant included funding for experiments in networked movement building.

This substantial–in the millions of dollars–multi-year investment in capacity development of high potential leaders represents a significant shift in funding practice for LSF and for the sector as a whole. While investing in leadership development is commonplace in corporate America, in the nonprofit sector funding for leadership development has been minuscule by any measure. Between 2003-2012, the country’s top foundations dedicated less than 1% of total grants to leadership development.

Leadership That’s Relevant and Effective

At the same time that the Pioneers of Justice experiment was getting underway, researchers for the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), posed a similar question: What skills will NPO leaders need to effective in a networked world? According to the LLC’s report, the nonprofit sector was growing but failing to solve the most important social problems. Social technology represented an opportunity for the sector and for society, but only if we figured out how to leverage it toward solving adaptive challenges. The kind of gnarly, complex problems that no one but the social sector will confront. Like the Levis Strauss Foundation, LLC saw a new kind of leadership as central to the success of the sector.

Leadership in a Networked Age

Both the Pioneers in Justice mid-program evaluation and LLC’s Leadership and Networks report have a lot to say about what we might need from nonprofit leaders now. The list of possible to-dos is long. I wanted to highlight three practices that struck as both relevant and achievable for a leader of any type of organization.

 1. Networked leaders put the community first 

Both the Pioneers in Justice and LLC researchers found that activists connected by social media see themselves as affiliated with a case than organizations working on the cause. For example, in one study activists were asked to name organizations that they know who are active in their movement, many failed to name any–even the organization that had recommended that they be interviewed for the research. So while organizations continue to track allies and potential supporters, this interest is not often reciprocated. For leaders operating in a conventional context this lack of recognition would be represent a branding issue. But leaders operating from networked perspective see this as a new normal. Rather than working branding, networked leaders pursue “network weaving,” or pulling people together to facilitate their effective collaboration. Whether they get credit for their efforts or not. This is a very different view of the role of leadership than the “leader as hero” model that has been (and still is) the conventional default.

2. Networked leaders dismantle outdated processes, even when it’s hard 

According to Abdi Soltani, head of the ACLU of Northern California, and a Pioneer in Justice cohort member, even in the age of Facebook it was common for  ACLU chapters to share most of their information via monthly board meetings and nowhere else. This, after all, is how the organization had done it for 80 years. Soltani sought to reshape the system by introducing digital tools to make communication between volunteers more frequent and updates on time-sensitive issues more relevant. He reported that the process of shifting the ACLU volunteer network to this new approach felt “agonizingly slow”.

The systems that LLC researchers saw needed dismantling were traditional leadership programs. To help leaders master network behaviors leadership programs would have to adopt and model network principles. This meant the leaders of leadership (often funders) would have to give up control and give participants opportunities to self-organize and co-design their experience.

3. Networked leaders share power

The Pioneers for Justice cohort found that decentralizing leadership is one way of dismantling organizational barriers to network development. To do so means relating to leadership as a practice rather than a formal position. Day to day this can look like job-sharing top roles like ED, not out of need but by choice. It can also look like distributing leadership for a program across several organizations rather than owning a successful initiative outright. According the LLC researchers, sharing power requires first daring to “have explicit and authentic conversations” about power dynamics with staff, board, service recipients, and funders. Networked collaboration is built on a foundation of authentic communication, or not at all.