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