How Living into Our Questions Led Us to Fund Networks

Our path to discovering our niche

By Ruth Rominger

Why does the Garfield Foundation invest, almost exclusively, in the development and evolution of systems-informed collaborative networks? What exactly are these networks, anyway? We probably couldn’t have even imagined being asked either of these questions in the early 2000s. At the time, we were asking ourselves a different, although ultimately related, set of questions about how we might experiment with new ways of working to help address the challenges we observed in the field of philanthropy.

Our answer to those questions was to experiment with a systems-informed approach to tackling a complex sustainability challenge that we would have typically addressed with a standard grant to one organization. We didn’t know what this would look like or what issue we would eventually choose to work on, but we did know that business-as-usual philanthropic practices had to change. And now, after fifteen years of grantmaking and hands-on partnerships, we believe that networks — the adaptive, self-organizing, and distributed kind — are a uniquely well-suited approach to designing and advancing the kind of transformative change our world needs.

Let me set some context. Back in the early 2000s, after our first few years as a foundation, we became deeply frustrated. We could see that, despite all the hard work and the best intentions, the endemic fragmentation and subtle competition among foundations and nonprofits were stifling efforts that should have been adding up to greater impacts than they were.

It was our belief then, and remains so today, that the lack of progress is neither from a scarcity of resources, nor from a shortage of great strategies or tested solutions. This thinking is contrary to a common rationale provided by foundations and nonprofits alike for the lack of progress on environmental issues. The Garfield Foundation asserted a different perspective: the field suffered instead from a lack of understanding how complex systems change happens and a parallel lack of meaningful collaborative relationships across foundations and nonprofits. This conviction among members of the Garfield team had been inspired by the pioneering work of The Natural Step, Donella Meadows, Jim-Ritchie Dunham, Peter Senge and others who were applying systems thinking and analyses in the emerging field of sustainability.

So we set out in search of an issue and a set of partners who were willing to experiment with new ways of working together. We needed people who were not satisfied with the status quo and who were open to questioning assumptions and experimenting with unfamiliar practices. We started visiting funder colleagues around the country to hear what they thought of the idea, and to get their input on which issue and community of funders and advocates might be a good testing ground. We found fertile ground with funders and advocates working to advance clean energy in the states of the upper Midwest, which at the time were disproportionately large contributors of carbon to the atmosphere.

Motivated, then, by a unique opportunity for impact, in 2004 we convened a group of likeminded partners to use systems mapping and analysis on the Midwest energy system. The intention was to develop a broader and deeper shared understanding of what was driving the current dirty energy system and stifling solutions. We were looking to go beyond the standard analyses to find more powerful and effective ways to accelerate transformational change.

Through facilitated conversation, the group agreed on the core system dynamics that needed to shift, identified four independent high-leverage interventions to push forward together, and agreed upon two audacious initial goals: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% from the electric sector by 2030 and 80% economy-wide by 2050 (RE-AMP’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals are based on 2005 levels). With this shared understanding established, the next challenge was to figure out how to implement a change process among so many organizations and across multiple states. Inspired by what was being discovered in systems and network research, we decided that a network structure was the most logical, albeit experimental, form for executing the ambitious agenda we had before us. A network would allow the organizations not just to collaborate, but to collaborate in a way that fits the complexity of the issue of energy and climate change. This was the beginning of the Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project, which eventually became known as the RE-AMP Network. Since 2004 member organizations have been working together to put systems-wide changes in motion with powerful results.

In the early days of RE-AMP, we used graphic recording to make sense of the path we were collectively forging.

It’s important to say that we did not set out to create what we now call a “systems-informed collaborative network.” Rather, we arrived at the idea of a network as the best form for organizing dispersed, autonomous organizations to collaborate after we dove into applying systems thinking with our willing partners. We didn’t start by saying, “let’s start a network.” In fact, in 2004 networks were not widely understood as they are today. The beginnings of RE-AMP preceded the explosion of the World Wide Web, the launch of the iPhone, the rise of social media. Online platforms for collaboration were not available beyond the military and large corporations. Fast forward to today, and the concept of networks has morphed into a wide variety of well-known applications and has taken root as an organizing form in social change work.

We have learned a ton about participatory systems analysis and network organizing through our work with the RE-AMP Network, and subsequently with the Cancer Free Economy Network (CFEN). Inspired by RE-AMP’s success, we co-created CFEN with a diverse group of health and environmental advocates in 2014.

We now define systems-informed collaborative networks (CNs) as intentionally designed collaborative spaces for connecting diverse stakeholders to align around a deep shared purpose, understand the system to transform, derive a set of interventions to push, and form infrastructure and agreements for learning, adaptation and impact.

Creating these kinds of collaboration spaces tends to unfold in a particular way. In many of the networks we partner with, in addition to those we follow and learn from, we’ve observed that the genesis and growth process is basically some version of the following:

  • Convene people and scope the issue. Connect stakeholders working in different ways to address a complex social or environmental problem.
  • Map the system together. Collective sensemaking builds bridges and creates a shared understanding of the bigger picture.
  • Identify places to intervene in the system. High leverage areas can move core dynamics and create significant change.
  • Organize teams and processes for taking collaborative action. Having intentional, flexible forms of collaboration enables multiple concurrent interventions.
  • Reflect, realign and re-engage. Constant learning enables adapting to a changing context and building on experience.

Reflecting on the past fifteen years, our experience suggests that networks, when intentionally designed for adapting to emergent opportunities, are an ideal organizational structure for people to democratically source, understand and share new information and take action. With shared understanding and trusting relationships, people are able to align, sequence, and reinforce one another’s efforts to accelerate the transformative change necessary to move humanity towards a resilient, regenerative, and vibrant future. Based on our experience and learning, we have come to see a distinct set of principles that underlie many systems-informed collaborative networks. We’ll talk about these principles in the next post.

Ruth Rominger is the Collaborative Networks Program Director with the Garfield Foundation.

We support changemakers in creating greater impact through systems-based collaborative networks. This is the space where we’re sharing our learning.