Network Weaving

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Policy networks

How can philanthropy assist in the formation of policy networks? I think the biggest mistake foundations make is that they often convene non-profits interested in a particular policy area and have them talk (often for months or even years), struggling to consense on a specific policy agenda which they then push forward as a group. For many intractable problems, though, this approach is premature, and often doesn't result in long term system change.

Why not start with the most basic system change and create a different set of relationships among all of those who care about some major problem or possibility? How can development of a policy agenda engage policy makers and policy influentials (Institutes, individuals, and media that people look to to shape discussions in a particular policy arena) from the start? Instead of immediately focusing on policy, could these key policy players become engaged with non-profits around experiments that help everyone learn what effective policy needs to look like for this area?

How could foundations and agencies see their role as creating policy networks that connect non-profits (both locally and with innovators around the world) and help them build long-term relationships with policy makers and policy influentials? Non-profits are all too often isolated from the experience of other non-profits that could inform policy recommendations.Too often they forge ahead with a massive change agenda with little or no experience from which to determine whether what they are suggesting will actually work or whether it has the flexibility needed to match the uniqueness of communities. How could they gain the skills needed for effective network building and collaboration that would support ongoing innovation?

What would policy look like that encourages collaboration and is flexible enough to allow creative adaptation to each community funded? I would love to see policy-mandated funding be based on the Innovation Fund model: the first round of policy sets up seed funds available to many collaborative projects, each made up of small groups of organizations interested in exploring a specific innovative approach through collaborative action. Well facilitated reflection sessions encourage the seed projects to explore what they learned about this policy terrain as a result of their innovative experience. Policy-designated funds are then available for new, larger collaborative projects that are thoroughly tracked to develop the key "patterns of success." Larger scale policy is then developed based on this learning and experience.

Looking forward to hearing about your experience and thoughts!


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