Network analysis as metric for grantmakers

[image from boxesandarrows]

You hear a lot about networks these days. In nonprofit jargon no one even wants to be an organization anymore, everyone wants to be a network. I've been thinking on a smaller scale of how networks might matter to philanthropy and funders and do-ers.

Assuming we value networks because they facilitate useful connections, improve information flow, influence better ideas, distribute work, disseminate excellence, and help distill any wisdom that might exist in a crowd than let us leave aside the rhetoric for a moment and look at networks as a measure of an organization's likelihood for success.

  • First, we have network measures - resilience, connectivity, diversity, centrality, even really cool sounding things like the Shimbel Index.
  • Second, grantmakers routinely collect information on the people in an organization (leadership, management, board) but don't do much with that information. If diversity of organizational leadership matters, doesn't it follow that the diversity of organizational networks also matters? Funders could map the networks that individuals associated with an organization represent - to other organizations and sectors - and develop some guidelines/categories that would help assess whether the organization was well connected to those it needed to be or was isolated. These cluster nicely and can be given fun names like "kevinbacon" or "singleton." Then they could factor this information into grant decisions.
  • Third, foundation program manager could factor this networked-ness into their portfolios - it is possibly as useful as "calculations" about risk and it is more consistently measurable.
  • Finally, networks measures can be considered over time - how do they change? which changes matter? Which networks helped the organization succeed? Which connections actually amplified the work?

OK, so I'm down in the weeds a bit today, but given the few comparable measures we have, maybe this is one that offers two of those rare attributes - it can be assessed and it matters.

Waddya think?

Note to self...have I noted network as a buzzword yet?


Lisa G-S said...

Lucy: I'd suggest speaking with Jon Pratt, head of the MN Council of Nonprofits ( He's been thinking about networks and nonprofits for quite a while (I worked with him for a short time I was a grad student).

Blair Benjamin said...

Hi Lucy -- the Williams College Center for Creative Community Development (with which I'm affiliated) has experimented with social network analysis in the cultural sector, studying the connections formed between organizations by their individual boardmembers, staff and volunteers, as you noted in your post. Some results from the analysis of MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA, are available at, with more explanation to be found by clicking the "network analysis" button in the lower right. Similar analysis, with a somewhat different methodology, has been undertaken with the Queens Museum of Art, and those results will be available soon. The work has been funded by grants from the Ford Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These analyses were part of a broader academic study of economic and social impacts of the arts, and thus they were not "commissioned" evaluations of the effectiveness of specific grants intended to strengthen social networks (MASS MoCA doesn't even receive grants from either of those funders). But as you suggest, it's quite plausible that in the future some funders might want to utilize before and after network analysis to measure the effectiveness of grant-funded network-building initiatives over time. Our center is essentially testing the feasibility of that concept, and different ways of going about it. I'd be happy to discuss it in more detail if you're interested.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Lisa and Blair - thank you both, these are great resources. I have long admired the work of MN Council and will check that out.

The work in the arts if very exciting to learn about and I will definitely check out the website - and may follow up with more questions. Thank you both!


Anonymous said...

Hi --

Great post.

Non-profits, NGO, and for profit philanthropy are making wide use of value networks and value network analysis.

See this ecosystem.

The next value network cluster is 22 Sept in Wash, DC.


Web and blog –

Product Site:


The VNA Network Intelligence suite is orderable online:

Here is a open site with further background.

Here is a discussion group.

And the Value Networks Industry Consortium.