network organizations

Today and yesterday, I’m participating in steering committee meetings ofthe Deliberative Democracy Consortium. Tomorrow, I’ll be chairing the steering committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. I also participate in three or four other organizations that have similar forms. They all have small paid staffs that are funded by grants from foundations. Individuals and ex officio representatives of nonprofit groups serve on their steering committees and do quite a lot of the work, on a voluntary basis.

I love this kind of organization and donate, I suppose, thousands of hours per year to them in the aggregate. They have great potential. They also face some characteristic challenges, including:

  • competition for limited funds between the staff of each network organization and its various members
  • unclear lines of authority, since the staff are accountable to the funders, but they are also expected to be “steered” by their steering committees
  • unequal and sometimes sporadic contributions of voluntary effort from steering committee members
  • a tradeoff between trying to create a “big tent” and pursuing a focused agenda
  • A combination of these challenges has made the National Alliance for Civic Education, which I helped to found, basically moribund. The groups I’m meeting with this week are in pretty good shape, as are Imagining America and the umbrella organizations in service-learning. All these organizations need to learn how to use new technologies to get more people involved in doing their work; and they all need to expand their revenue sources so as to diminish competition for funds. But it may be that the challenges that these groups face are perennial, and that’s why civil society is constantly “churning”–generating new networks while others fall apart.

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