Networking Weaving and Innovative Thinking

I had the great pleasure to listen in during a NTEN webcast with June Holley. For more than 20 years, June has been weaving economic and community networks through her Smart Network program and analyzer. Soon after the webcast, I was flipping through the Spring 2010 Stanford Social Innovation Review and read about foundations funding people and innovation not projects*. An idea June also shared with us during the webcast. This is a new concept for many foundations.

I have been connecting people and organizations for more than 20 years. When I met Brian Uzzi (my network guru) it changed how I viewed networks. Learning from June expanded my process for connecting people. How can I move nonprofit to innovative solutions and thinking collboratively? Keep learning, make no assumptions, ask others what they think, work outside the network.

What I loved about June’s comments was her vision about networking weaving and innovation. She encourages us to be purposeful in our networking. June’s suggestions:

  • Ask purposeful questions
  • Who is the best listener in the group/community?
  • What’s (who’s) the best network connection you have made?
  • Create networks through innovation – will require more people with diverse POV and willingness to share and be open
  • Leave assumptions at the door
  • Can’t work in silos – purposeful networking requires reaching out, learning, listening and sharing
  • Open mind and hearts to new ideas – especially if they aren’t your own

June talked about an innovative foundation in Ohio offering initial grants of $50-$1,500 to fund ideas/collaborations/innovative thinking not programs. This fund encourages people to work collaboratively, network purposefully and listen actively to find/determine solutions to community challenges. Once they have come to agreement, they can re-apply for larger grants to implement their ideas.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) not only funds innovation; encourages people to pursue new ideas with others in and outside of their field, but offers feedback to their grantees. The Echoing Green fund in New York also invests in people over projects. The Draper Richards Foundation funds early-stage nonprofits with multiyear, general operating grants; concentrating on cultivating visionary, entrepreneurial leaders whose distinctive models promise impact. What makes these foundations different besides the apparent focus of their grant making?  I think these grant makers are purposeful in their support of innovation and people over programs. Good for them and those they fund!

  • Their grants are often longer in duration. HHMI often works with grantees for 5 years v. 1-3 years
  • They allow people to fail and learn from failure while finding solutions v. grantees feel the need to succeed in order to get funded again
  • They want grantees to try new things and help them choose the “most likely to succeed” choices v. meeting grant goals no matter what
  • The foundation staff offer feedback, networks and support to the learning and innovation process v. annual reporting process
  • They connect grantees to other grantees, resources and ideas v. working solo on challenges others may also be pursuing
  • They encourage using existing knowledge in addition to new ideas – (See Switch by the Heath brothers) v. funding the same thing or path of least resistance
  • They recognize the value of talent/people to make change, being the engine behind social change v. funding programs and not funding general operations

So what did I get from this? Purposeful networking, innovation and creativity will always move us forward – for and non-profit organizations. We know this, right? But I don’t believe the third sector takes the time or provides the resources for it. What if there isn’t a box in which we have to work? What if there aren’t any silos between program and fundraising or grant makers and grantees?

*Pierre Azoulay, Joshua S. Graff Zivin, and Gustavo Manso, “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences,” NBER working paper, #15466, October 2009.

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