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Thinking about Networks

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I was at the Ford Foundation this morning, attending a presentation of Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit with a bold mission of transforming public schools as a pathway out of poverty and preparing the future workforce for the 21-century economy. In a short time, the model has achieved impressive success.

Anne Sherman Anne Sherman

We heard from several Generation Schools staff and stakeholders: a member of the senior team, a principal, a director of career and college readiness, two alumni, and representatives from a corporate partner. Each shared their compelling perspective on the model’s quality and impact. I was struck by how they don’t just talk to students about college and career; they’ve made college and career integral to the curriculum. Their objective, in the words of co-founder and Chief Learning Officer Jonathan Spear, is to “blow open the walls of the school” and engage colleges, employers, and other community partners in their students’ education.

Generation Schools clearly demonstrates the critical importance of networks. If kids are to succeed, they need to know about the worlds of college and work, and they must be comfortable navigating them.

This is all particularly meaningful to me because I work for the Social Impact Exchange. Our mission is to build growth capital markets that will increase the access effective nonprofits have to funding that will allow them to scale their impact. Nonprofits like Generation Schools that have both evidence of success and plans to scale their impact are of great interest to us. Yet, reflecting on this morning’s presentation, I find myself more curious about how Generation Schools has built and leveraged networks as part of their model than I am about their evaluation results or business plan.

We at the Exchange believe that if we are going to make progress on solving our society’s more intractable social problems, funders and nonprofits need to be able to work toward shared goals in a more coordinated way. For the past several years, we have worked diligently to build a network of funders and other sector leaders interested in scaling impact. We’ve learned a lot of things. For example, we have come to understand that we will only realize our vision of a functioning growth capital marketplace if we can build a vibrant and engaged network of supporters. We’ve also come to appreciate just how challenging this work truly is!

Our annual conference is a central component of our network development strategy. Our fifth anniversary conference is on June 18-19, 2014 in New York City. This year, the agenda will pay special attention to how cultivate and strengthen the network of funders that can support scaled social impact. We are delighted that Lance Fors of Social Venture Partners and Heather McLeod Grant will lead the entire audience in discussion on this subject. Related sessions include Tonya Allen, CEO of The Skillman Foundation, and Kenneth Zimmerman, Director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations talking about social movements and the role of philanthropy. Jacob Harold, CEO of Guidestar, will speak about the critical role of data in creating social change. I hope that you will also be there to help us broaden and deepen the networks we’re building to scale social impact in the U.S.

The preceding is a guest post by Anne Sherman, Vice President, Nonprofit Strategy at Growth Philanthropy Network. Before GPN, she was Director of Strategy at TCC Group, a consultancy that assists nonprofits, foundations, and corporate community involvement programs. Prior to TCC Group, she was community initiatives manager at Minneapolis Way To Grow, a citywide school-readiness initiative. Sherman holds a master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs. Her volunteer work includes serving as chair of the governing body of the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and as a member of the board of SCO Family of Services. She also serves on the selection committee of the New York Community Trust-New York Magazine Nonprofit Excellence Awards. Sherman is the co-author of Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles, published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass.

Topics: Nonprofit Programs