The Web of Change

Creating Impact Through Networks
Photo by
David Ehrlichman
September 16, 2021
6 min

The following post is excerpted from the introduction of Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change, now available in print, as an audiobook, and as an ebook.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Since the beginning of our species, humans have formed networks. Our social networks grow whenever we introduce our friends to each other, when we move to a new town, or when we congregate around a shared set of beliefs. Social networks have shaped the course of history. Historian Niall Ferguson has noted that many of the biggest changes in history were catalyzed by networks—in part, because networks have been shown to be more creative and adaptable than hierarchical systems.[1]

Ferguson goes on to assert that “the problem is that networks are not easily directed towards a common objective. . . . Networks may be spontaneously creative but they are not strategic.”[2] This is where we disagree. While networks are not inherently strategic, they can be designed to be strategic.

When deliberately cultivated, networks can forge connections across divides, spread information and learning, and spark collaborative action. As a result, they can “address sprawling issues in ways that no individual organization can, working toward innovative solutions that are able to scale,” write Anna Muoio and Kaitlin Terry Canver of Monitor Institute by Deloitte.[3] Networks can be powerful vehicles for creating change.

Of course, networks can have positive as well as negative effects. Economic inequality and the advantages and disadvantages of social class, race, ethnicity, gender, and other aspects of individual identity are in large part the result of network effects: certain types of people form bonds that increase their social capital, typically at significant social expense to those in other groups. Much of the world has become acutely aware of the harmful network effects arising from social media and the internet. This includes the proliferation of online echo chambers that feed people what they want to hear, even when it means rapidly spreading misinformation.

In our globally connected and interdependent society, it is imperative that we understand the network dynamics that influence our lives so that we can create new networks to foster a more resilient and equitable world. The choice in front of us is clear: either we can let networks form according to existing social, political, and economic patterns, which will likely leave us with more of the same inequities and destructive behaviors, or we can deliberately and strategically catalyze new networks to transform the systems in which we live and work.

A case in point is the RE-AMP Network, a collection of more than 140 organizations and foundations working across sectors to equitably eliminate greenhouse gas emissions across nine mid- western states by 2050. From the time it was formed in 2015, RE-AMP has helped retire more than 150 coal plants, implement rigorous renewable energy and transportation standards, and re-grant over $25 million to support strategic climate action in the Midwest. RE-AMP’s work is necessary in part because other powerful networks are also at play to maintain the status quo or to enrich the forces that profit from pollution and inequality.

We can look to the field of education for another example of a network creating significant impact. 100Kin10 is a massive collaborative effort that is bringing together more than three hundred academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, businesses, and government agencies to train and support one hundred thousand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers across the United States in ten years. Founded in 2011, 100Kin10 is well on track to achieve its ambitious goal and has expanded its aim to take on the longer-term systemic challenges in STEM education.

The Justice in Motion Defender Network is a collection of human rights defenders and organizations in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua that have joined together to help migrants quickly obtain legal assistance across borders. Throughout the ongoing family separation crisis created by US immigration policies during the Trump administration, this network has been essential in locating deported parents in remote regions of Central America and coordinating reunification with their children.

Or consider a network whose impact spans the globe, the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN). CEPN brings together many of the world’s top technology suppliers and brands with labor and environmental advocates, governments, and other leading experts to move toward elimination of workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals in electronics production. Since forming in 2016, the network has defined shared commitments, developed tools and resources for reducing workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, and standardized the process of collecting data on chemical use.

Networks like RE-AMP, 100Kin10, the Defender Network, and CEPN—along with many others you will learn about in this book—were not spontaneous or accidental; rather, they were formed with clear intent. These networks deliberately connect people and organizations together to promote learning and action on an issue of common concern. We call them impact networks to highlight their intentional design and purposeful focus, and to contrast them with the organic networks formed as part of our social lives.[4]

We think of impact networks as a combination of a vibrant community and a healthy organization. At the core they are relational, yet they are also structured. They are creative, and they are also strategic. Impact networks build on the life force of community—shared principles, resilience, self-organization, and trust— while leveraging the advantages of an effective organization, including a common aim, an operational backbone, and a bias for action. Through this unique blend of qualities, impact networks increase the flow of information, reduce waste, and align strategies across entire systems—all while liberating the energy of multiple actors operating at a variety of scales.

All around the world, impact networks are being cultivated to address complex issues in the fields of health care, education, science, technology, the environment, economic justice, the arts, human rights, and others. They mark an evolution in the way humans are organizing to create meaningful change. 

To learn more about what impact networks are, how they work, and what it takes to cultivate and sustain them, Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change

[1]: Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (London: Penguin Books, 2018), xix.

[2]: Ferguson, The Square and the Tower, 43.

[3]: Anna Muoio and Kaitlin Terry Canver, Shifting a System, Monitor Institute by Deloitte, accessed December 17, 2020, /content/dam/insights/us/articles/5139_shifting-a-system/DI_ Reimagining-learning.pdf.

[4]: June Holley has called them “intentional networks” in Network Weaver Handbook: A Guide to Transformational Networks (Athens, Ohio: Network Weaver Publishing, 2012). Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland have called them “generative social impact networks” in Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2014).

David Ehrlichman

David is a catalyst and coordinator of Converge and author of Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change. With his colleagues, he has supported the development of dozens of impact networks in a variety of fields, and has worked as a network coordinator for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, Sterling Network NYC, and the Fresno New Leadership Network. He speaks and writes frequently on networks, finds serenity in music, and is completely mesmerized by his newborn daughter.