Facing growing pressure to improve their impact and effectiveness, nonprofit networks that consist of multiple affiliates are pursuing a range of strategies to identify, connect and support their affiliates, a new study says.
“Networks, with multiple sites often operating similar programs, are increasingly expected to provide donors and supporters with a higher level of evidence that their work is effective and delivered consistently across the board,” says Growing Network Impact: How Nonprofit Networks are Raising the Bar on Results, a report by the Bridgespan Group.
Networks represent nine of the 10 biggest nonprofits in the U.S., including YMCA, Catholic Charities, United Way, Goodwill, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs, Habitat for Humanity, and Easter Seals, the study says.
Based on Bridgespan Group’s own work and an examination of five networks, the study finds five common elements in efforts by networks to “deliver measurably better results.”
First, networks are using a “unified strategy to drive decision-making.”
The networks Bridgespan studied, for example, invested time “honing a network-wide strategy before they began to try to improve effectiveness across the board,” the study says.
Second, networks “create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness,” it says.
The networks Bridgespan studied all tried to “identify a small, critical set of factors that are reliable indicators of effectiveness for affiliates,” the study says, including “program dimensions,” such as results achieved by beneficiaries, and “organizational dimensions,” such as the strength of each affiliate’s board or its fundraising ability.
“Having clear dimensions of effectiveness helps network and affiliate leaders set clear expectations for improvement, compare results in a constructive manner, and understand by some affiliates might need to improve,” the study says.
Third, networks “create paths for improvement for affiliates,” the study says.
“No network will have ever affiliated modeling all successful practices, so this key element recognizes milestones that indicate movement in the right direction,” it says. “Affiliates can then calibrate their own performance against those milestones.”
Fourth, networks diagnose their current status and “uncover pockets of strength,” the study says, “giving themselves a baseline against which to measure progress.”
Finally, networks “capture knowledge that matters,” the study says, and “use diagnostic results to facility learning and improvement.”
Staff at the central organization “seem particularly well-positioned to help identify leading affiliates on any given dimension, and also to ensure that their expertise is easily accessible to the rest of the network,” the study says.
The center also can play an important, it says, “supporting role by being intentional in its application of resources, incentives and supports to help affiliates improve.”