Alberta Nonprofit Network News
Alberta Nonprofit Network News
Networks as a Tool for Change
There are moments in each of our lives where we feel compelled to try something different. Perhaps what we’ve been doing isn’t working as well as we’d like, or we feel we don’t have the capacity to get to the heart of the issue. Whatever the reason, there is something inside us that tells us it is time to take a new approach.
It was a moment like this that compelled six Alberta nonprofits to explore something new in the fall of 2017.
These organizations saw challenges and inefficiencies with Alberta nonprofit sector. They saw that there were strategic opportunities at the sector level that were not being maximized - opportunities for greater coordination, improved communication and a more cohesive and united approach to problem solving.
“There was a desire to build capacity to better handle opportunities in a collaborative fashion,” says Blythe Butler, Network Weaver for ABNN. “Some issues are better handled together than alone, and ABNN is a network approach to try to bring that desire into reality.”
We’re all familiar with the term ‘network’…but what does it really mean as a tool for social change?
We’re all part of networks – ecological networks, family networks, social networks and online networks. An organizational network is a group or system of organizations working together to achieve a common purpose.
Interorganizational and sector-wide, ABNN uses the network approach to analyze, build and use connectivity among people and organizations to influence systems. In the case of ABNN, the network approach is being used address systems-level issues and advance the cohesive, proactive and responsive nonprofit sector in Alberta. This means bringing together people from all different view points to define issues, identify root causes of those issues, and then to leverage network resources to collectively respond.
Organizational networks can “… play a critical role in helping organizations spread innovation and adapt to change (Smith, 2003, 2009). Having the capacity to adapt to change includes having the ability to harness knowledge and creativity to fashion unique responses…” (Sussman, 2004).
It's all about the how
Organizational networks are not just organizations working together – high-quality networks take a network approach to guide how they work together to achieve their purpose.
A clear distinction of a network approach is that organizations are deliberately enhancing the quality of the connections amongst participants. It requires those in the network to examine their individual and organizational thinking habits, belief systems and structures that may have contributed to the problem in the first place. Individuals within the network must demonstrate curiosity, openness to ideas and change, active listening, interest in authentic relationships and a willingness for reflective self-awareness.
A new approach requires a willingness for unpredictability
As ABNN grows and evolves, we ask everyone involved to embrace the network approach. Sometimes it will seem messy or unstructured, sometimes you might wonder who is doing what and where we are going. With the network approach there isn’t only one person leading the charge - what we do and how we do it comes from the voices of the people and organizations involved. We hope that you share your ideas and perspective, that you accept the unpredictability and discomfort, and that you participate in whatever way makes sense for your organization.
Networks are ultimately made up of human beings. To the extent they help the people involved to learn, grow and become empowered to contribute to the collective change – the network – and by extension all of us – succeed.
 This is a network definition by P Bowie, 2009
Province-Wide Data Strategy Empower our Sector?
It’s been called the fourth industrial revolution, the big data era. Governments and big businesses have jumped aboard, harnessing the power of data to inform strategy and guide organizations. But what about the nonprofit sector? How can we organized ourselves to make the most of data?
It’s a question that ABNN is tackling through the exploration of a province-wide Nonprofit Data Strategy. A group of nonprofits have come together to discuss how are we currently measuring and using data, and whether a province-wide approach might be worth the investment.
The Current State of Data in the Sector
A survey conducted by PolicyWise for Children & Families in spring of 2018 showed that most nonprofits in Alberta see data as a strategic asset to their organizations, but face a number of challenges. Organizations are concerned about governance issues such as data privacy and ethics, as well as technical barriers, such as data quality issues and using complicated software systems. Another key theme from the survey was the lack of capacity and staff training to take full advantage of data.
The challenges increase when considering sector-wide, province-wide data gathering and sharing. That being said, research done by the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) shows that the value of data can be dramatically increased when it is shared. Through data sharing we can see patterns and gain insights that would not be apparent if data remained closed in organizational silos. The report also shows that efforts are likely worth it – the benefits of a data strategy include using evidence to inform more responsive programs and services, learning and communicating about impact, and collaborating more effectively.
Imagining What a Province-Wide Data Strategy Looks Like
With the support of an Alberta Culture and Tourism grant, ABNN’s Data Strategy Steering Committee embarked on a project to identify the challenges and opportunities, assess the sector’s capacity and start scoping the elements of a strategy. Results of this first phase were summarized and shared in a white paper.
Phase II will build upon Phase I. The Steering Committee and other network participants will engage in further stakeholder consultations to get input on proposed initiatives, and then move on to planning the implementation.
“We know that there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to have a team in place that sees the potential of a good data strategy and is willing to work through the challenges,” says Robyn Blackadar, ABNN Data Strategy Steering Committee Co-Chair and President & CEO of PolicyWise for Children & Families. “ABNN provides a space for collaboration across the sector so that we can bring multiple perspectives on the issues and find solutions together.”
If you have questions or would like to get involved in this project, we invite you to reach out to email@example.com. Otherwise, look for more updates as we make progress!
In January 2019, ABNN coordinated two workshops (one in Edmonton and one in Calgary) to discuss what a policy agenda could look like for the Alberta nonprofit sector as a whole. Representatives from 49 nonprofit organizations participated in the discussions, offering considerable insight into how the sector perceives itself, its strengths and challenges, and key initiatives that would advance the sector as a whole.
From these conversations, three recommendations emerged:
Also based on the discussions, a Draft Policy Agenda [link to Agenda file] was developed. This draft agenda acts as a starting point for further discussion and action as the sector continues to define and refine what a provincial-wide, sector-wide agenda could look like.
The current Draft Policy Agenda centers on four priority actions:
This is just the beginning! There is much work to do to develop the Policy/Government Relations team and figure out how to best engage the sector and its stakeholders. We’ve made some great progress in the last few months and will continue to engage with nonprofits on what they think is important and how we should engage in these discussions.
We don’t need an official Policy Agenda to make a difference this election round. We encourage all nonprofits to take a look at Election Resources we’ve compiled and to participate in #nonprofitsvote.
If you have comments about the Policy Agenda recommendations and draft agenda, or if you’re interested in participating in discussions, surveys or the group moving this forward, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!
2019 Provincial Election Resources
ABNN has pulled together a number of resources that Alberta nonprofits have collectively developed to inform our responses and capacity in light of the upcoming 2019 Alberta Provincial election. Some are issue-specific, some are subsector-specific, and some are sector-level and issue-neutral.
Stay in the Know
The ABNN Newsletter is your source for trends and sector-level issues, as well as information about upcoming ABNN events and opportunities to participate.
Anyone interested in the nonprofit sector is welcome to join and participate - there is no defined scope or size, nor are there any memberships fees or obligations.
Click here to sign up for the ABNN Newsletter or follow us on social media.