This article originally appeared on the Monitor Institute's website. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.
For six years, the RE-AMP network — comprising 125 non-profits and funders across eight states in the U.S.'s upper Midwest — has been focused on just one audacious goal: reducing regional global warming emissions 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050. And it's working.
Much has been written about the power of networks to increase social impact. For non-profits and funders that want to go deeper on the tactics of how to build an effective network, it is useful to understand how RE-AMP has done it. RE-AMP's process was well-informed by decades of thinking related to systems dynamics and group facilitation. But what is new is the way in which RE-AMP combined these "best practices" with "next practices" to create a robust, resilient, and high-impact network.
The results speak for themselves. In just the past few years, the network has helped legislators pass energy efficiency policies in six states; promoted one of the most rigorous cap-and-trade programs in the nation; and halted the development of 28 new coal plants. The network has also built the capacity of regional activists, increased funding for its cause, created a number of shared resources, and developed stronger relationships between funders and non-profits.
Understanding just how RE-AMP accomplished this can give other groups interested in building a collective network to address a systems-level problem a roadmap to follow. During its two-month study of RE-AMP, Monitor Institute identified six key principles that RE-AMP members followed in building their network:
- Start by understanding the system you are trying to change. RE-AMP began with a year-long systems mapping process, which helped the network to agree upon a collective goal of reducing energy emissions by 80 percent. The shared map also gave participants insight into the four key levers necessary to change that larger system. From there, the group worked backward to design working groups and action plans with specific targeted goals, which were then used to coordinate and align member action and funding.
- Involve both funders and nonprofits as equals from the outset. Many social change efforts are carried out by nonprofits and paid for by funders; often each actor makes decisions independently, without knowing what others are doing. RE-AMP had nonprofits and funders agree on collective priorities within the context of a holistic system, then align their action and funding accordingly. In so doing, it created an opportunity for funders and nonprofits to engage as equals in setting shared strategies, even if their roles differ.
- Design for a network, not an organization — and invest in collective infrastructure. Too many foundations trying to catalyze networks end up creating new, centralized organizations, which can dampen self-organizing and emergence. To truly enable coordinated action, RE-AMP focused on designing a network with decentralized structures, many hubs, shared leadership, and multiple platforms for connecting and communicating.
- Cultivate leadership at many levels. In the RE-AMP network, leadership has been exercised at various times by funders, consultants, facilitators, staff, and members elected to more formal leadership positions on a steering committee or working group. This shared leadership created resilience and greater effectiveness, as the network could push forward on multiple fronts simultaneously.
- Create multiple opportunities to connect and communicate. Communication is the lifeblood of networks: it is critical to share information and coordinate action, both online and offline. RE-AMP has a robust technology platform called the Commons, which it supplements with conference calls, webinars, list-serves, face-to-face meetings, and an annual conference that brings the entire network together to build relationships and develop collective strategy.
- Remain adaptive and emergent — and committed to a long-term vision. One of the distinct benefits of networks is their ability to be more fluid than organizations and adapt to rapidly changing environments. Just as RE-AMP’s design has remained decentralized, so too members continually monitor feedback loops to identify lessons learned and emerging opportunities for action. The hope is that this emergent structure will allow RE-AMP to remain resilient and effective even as external political or economic conditions change.