Building More Resilient Social Impact Networks

Social impact networks inevitably face moments of existential crisis. But networks can prepare for them by asking the right questions.


The office space that coauthor Michelle Shumate visited was spacious and modern. It housed many of the 100-plus education-related nonprofits that comprised The Literacy Organization. After a tour, she entered the boardroom with the executive director, Jerry, to talk about why he had asked her there.1 She and Jerry chatted about the challenges networks often face, including the costs associated with running them and the difficulty of determining whether their efforts were making any difference. He wanted to know if she could help The Literacy Organization measure its social impact.

Jerry was going to be disappointed.

“I like the network’s mission, and the space is impressive,” she told him. “But the links between the activities you’re doing and the social impact that your network claims to have are tenuous at best. I doubt you’re making the social impact you claim. Your member organizations might be making that impact, but your network isn’t.” She offered to help The Literacy Organization evaluate the capacity-building work it was doing for its nonprofit partners, which she viewed as the network’s authentic contribution. But she suggested that attributing social impact—that is, citywide education-outcome improvements—to the work of the network would be disingenuous.

Not long after this meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the beautiful shared-office space that the leaders loved to show off to funders and potential network partners. Then the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd and the protests it spawned spotlighted the whiteness of the network’s members, prompting them to consider whether they were challenging the power structures within a racially and economically diverse city. And a major funder reduced its contribution to operating costs because of its own financial crisis. Together, these circumstances proved too challenging to overcome. The Literacy Organization ultimately dissolved, to the dismay of Jerry and the many organizational leaders who had initiated the network.

This story is not unique. In our research, we have studied hundreds of networks, coalitions, and collaborative projects organized with social impact as their goal. We’ve combined insights from decades of investigation alongside new research, including a multiyear study of community-based networks that examined network change, to write a new book, Networks for Social Impact. Many of the more than 50 networks we studied in the Networks for Social Impact in Education2 project and the resulting book3 underwent what we call a “crossroads moment.” These moments were not just common challenges, like retiring members or the development of a new initiative. And not all of them were related to widespread turmoil, such as COVID-19. But they all posed do-or-die problems for the networks we studied.

How can social impact networks survive and even thrive through these crossroads moments? Our research suggests that almost all networks face them, and the prior decisions that they make influence their options and, by extension, their outcomes. Networks that prove to be resilient embrace practices that prepare them for the questions that all networks will have to face when these moments arrive. They decentralize their leadership, identify and align their theory of change with resources, and develop strategies to manage conflict effectively. And when the crossroads moment arrives, effective network leaders tell the truth and guide their organizational members through a set of fundamental questions in ways that resolve them.

What Are Social Impact Networks?

Social impact networks are groups of three or more organizations focused on a common purpose. They exist in the liminal space between member organizations’ autonomy and interdependence. As a result, managing crossroads moments as a network leader is more challenging than addressing them for organizations. Network leaders have all the responsibilities of traditional social impact organization leaders but rarely have the same authority.

Network design is not as well known as traditional organizational design. Network designs differ from one another in a variety of ways. Some boast memberships of several hundred organizations, while others have fewer than a dozen members. Some networks are made up of nonprofit organizations working together. Others include businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits. A backbone organization governs some networks by overseeing the network’s administrative functions, while other networks—often ones that are smaller or more inclusive of community membership—make decisions collectively. Some networks emerge from local leaders trying to address an emergent local problem. Still others are formed by technical-service umbrella groups (e.g., AmericaServes, StriveTogether, The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading) working with local leaders.

The most important design difference among these networks is their theory of change, or the way they choose to engage the problem they are trying to address. Networks can focus on a single theory of change or use multiple approaches to engage a problem. These may be simultaneous strategies—for example, in larger or well-funded networks with the resources to pursue multiple approaches. Other networks may take a sequential approach and adopt different theories of change as their understanding of the problem evolves. In Networks for Social Impact, we describe the five most common theories of change that networks embrace.

Project-based theories of change focus on creating and delivering a new program or product from the networks’ joint activity. For example, Ready, Set, Parent!, a collaborative including Every Person Influences Children (EPIC), Baker Victory Services, and Catholic Health, partnered to create a program to support new parents following childbirth. Project-based theories of change are the least complicated of the five, in that a network forms to launch a new, defined project and then disbands or scales down its involvement once the project is complete. The network’s social impact depends on the program’s quality or service.

Catalyst-based theories of change operate when networks try to scale an effective practice. While individual organizations also scale up their effective practices, catalyst-based networks result in a network-level solution. The Graduate! Network offers a prime example. Its initial model prescribed founding a community network to help “comebackers”—people who began postsecondary education but left before completing their degree—finish their education. The network includes college leaders, local funders, economic development agencies, workforce investment boards, employers interested in expanding their workforce, city leaders, consumer credit counseling agencies, libraries and other “public spaces” in the community, and local nonprofits. The Philadelphia-based model has been replicated in 41 communities and has reached more than 80,000 comebackers through its efforts.

By contrast, policy-based theories of change depend on legislative and regulatory change through direct or grassroots lobbying of government and legal challenges. Such networks generate social impact when their advocacy is successful. Take, for example, RE-AMP, a network founded in 2004 that has more than 130 member organizations across the Midwest of the United States. The RE-AMP network’s goal is to equitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the region. It has increased the amount of renewable energy produced in the Midwest through state-level advocacy efforts, blocked new coal power plant development, and dismantled existing coal power plants.

Networks like RE-AMP, which use a policy-based theory of change, are often quite large and engage in joint campaign planning to influence specific targets. RE-AMP members, for example, not only concentrated on specific state legislative priorities but also coordinated their efforts across states. Such collective action enables policy-based networks to achieve greater success in influencing policy than individual member organizations can achieve by themselves.

Learning-based theories of change focus on improving the quality of services organizations already offer. The Center for Communities That Care uses this approach in the model for its coalitions across the United States. It relies on community leaders—who may represent schools, health care, nonprofits, the justice system, or local government—to learn evidence-based practices to reduce risky youth behavior, including substance abuse. Its social impact depends on the degree to which member organizations learn and adopt such evidence-based practices across their communities.

Networks have the advantage over individual organizations of collecting comparable performance and activity data across a host of similar organizations. (When individual organizations collect data independently, they often have no benchmark besides their past performance.) The Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative uses a comparative learning approach, even though its member organizations differ in their goals and clientele. Some member organizations serve adults, while others focus on early childhood, and because these groups operate in different neighborhoods, the populations they serve vary in terms of race, ethnicity, and native language. But rather than focusing just on what their organizations were doing, leaders were curious whether combining efforts would make a greater difference in Chicago. The member organizations identified program and educational outcomes that could be measured across all their organizations. But the network didn’t stop with data collection. Members also committed to sharing practices, reviewing their outcomes, and setting goals together. Each member incorporated at least one practice they learned from another member of the collaborative in their organization’s improvement plan. Their networked activity allowed members to compare data more robustly, get a better sense of their outcomes, learn and apply different strategies, and ultimately improve the educational outcomes of their organization’s clients.

Finally, systems-alignment theories of change coordinate the joint services of member organizations and explore service gaps. Compared with theories of change that depend on launching a new project, scaling up a practice, introducing policy, or facilitating member learning, these networks apply a more systemic comparison and adjustment of existing organizational efforts. Organizational activities may be reduced, combined, or altered to create a more comprehensive approach that serves a broader environment beyond an individual organization’s beneficiaries. Systems-alignment networks make a social impact only when programs work together to improve outcomes across a population.

Recent federal investments in coordinated systems of care suggest more networks are attempting systems alignment.4 For example, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program creates a network of housing providers to quickly rehouse homeless individuals and families. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Roadmap for States provides guidance on using Medicaid Section 1115 waivers to help networks set their own path in addressing social determinants of health and aligning benefits, programs, and services across organizations.

AmericaServes, for example, supports 11 networks that tend to veterans, service members transitioning from active duty to civilian life, and military families. Its systems of care ensure that no referral to another organization in the network is dropped. It deploys a closed-loop community resource referral technology5 that tracks the status of every referral. Each network has a coordination center that monitors the status of referrals and can act when one gets stuck. This coordination allows network members to offer more specific feedback more quickly. The average time for a referral to be answered by a veterans’ service organization in the AmericaServes network is less than 48 hours, a tremendous improvement from the wait lists that are common in veterans’ services. AmericaServes use a systems-alignment theory of change, in that no participating organization has created a new program or service. Instead, its networks improve access to and coordination of services. They use a shared community resource referral platform and a dedicated coordination center to make, track, and manage cross-organizational referrals.

Network leaders understand that the dynamics they face are subject to change, anticipate potential challenges, and formulate strategies to overcome them.

Networks form from a shared interest in a social problem and a belief that organizations can achieve an impact by working together. Articulating a theory of change is typically enough to draw in some members and attract some funding. However, once the work gets underway, networks often undergo some shift. Some networks will try to maintain their initial structure and theory of change to honor their original commitment to funders or the community in which the network operates. Others experiment with multiple theories of change as they sense what is possible within their communities, before landing on one or a combination of two. Sometimes networks update their models based on what they learn—a type of network maturation. These experiences are typical as networks deal with changes from within or outside the network. But other times, networks face a crossroads moment that leads them to question almost all of their early decisions about how the network will operate—and whether, in its current form, it can survive long enough to achieve any impact at all.

Five Common Crossroads Moments

Networks confront constant change. Individual members and organizations come and go within the network. Organizational and network resources shift. Networks also operate in fluctuating environments. Social issues shift as public opinion, political leadership, and legal precedent influence our understanding of the contours of problems and possible solutions. Network leaders understand that the dynamics they face are subject to change, anticipate potential challenges, and formulate strategic plans to overcome them.

Crossroads moments differ from the everyday predicaments that network leaders face. They are radical, disruptive events that call into question the working assumptions of the network. As researchers Deborah Agostino, Michela Arnaboldi, and Martina Dal Molin write in their paper on the topic: “If the challenge of a crossroads is overcome, then a new phase of the collaboration is activated; otherwise, the collaboration itself will dissolve.” 6 In our research over the past five years, we’ve identified five common crossroads moments that networks face. Most networks won’t experience all of these moments, but almost every network will experience at least one.

Funders slash their support | Many social impact networks rely on grants during their early years. The grants help them scale their work from voluntary efforts by a few organizations to hiring staff to manage and run the network. But reliance on grants can create a boom-or-bust cycle.

More mature networks face a crossroads moment when they are overly dependent on a single donor to continue their work. These donors are often the founding funders and may have even played a role in establishing the network in the first place. When such funding relationships end, the network can face a crisis.

Take, for example, the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network and its efforts to improve educational outcomes in its Michigan community. It lost a national grant at the same time that the network’s leadership experienced turnover. The combination of these two events left the network scrambling to figure out how it could continue its work without major funding. Ultimately, the remaining network members pivoted to a project-based theory of change that relied on work-study students from the local community college and AmeriCorps programs.

Major event upends network activities | In the past two years, social impact networks have had to adapt to two significant developments, the COVID-19 pandemic and the national racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd. The former forced many of the programs and services of member organizations to become virtual or stop when they couldn’t be held in person. New emergent needs, such as food insecurity and the need for internet connectivity for schoolchildren, mobilized some networks and their member organizations to take on new activities. The Black Lives Matter movement prompted many organizations and stakeholders to look critically at who facilitated and participated in social impact networks—and who these networks were intended to serve.

Many social impact networks we’ve worked with have experienced a crossroads during the past two years, especially educational networks serving K-12 students. Many local college access networks (LCANs), for example, shut down their activities altogether during the pandemic. These community-based college access alliances work closely with business, government, community, and education leaders. Many school districts and schools they worked with were experiencing COVID-related crises of their own and could no longer afford the time and energy to devote to college access.

A visionary leader walks away | Leadership changes can present existential challenges to some networks, especially if networks lose a champion—a founding, visionary, or transformational leader. Although social impact networks operate through coordinated, collective efforts, most social change initiatives are associated with individual leaders who can convince others to join their cause.

Member organizations and funders can interpret the departure of a network’s champion as the loss of the network’s vision. Network participants may be anxious that a leader’s departure will lead to a decline in momentum, funding, and connections. Because network champions often bring their expertise to an area they are passionate about, network members may worry that they lack the enthusiasm or experience to execute the network’s goal as it was initially defined. In Pittsfield Promise, an education-based network, the departure of several important leaders prompted concerns about losing other network participants. Many organizational partners had joined the network at the urging of these individuals. When these early advocates for Pittsfield Promise transitioned out of their respective organizations and thus the network, some remaining members questioned their own commitment to the network.

A powerful organization absorbs the network’s work | Network leaders often broker relationships between more powerful and less powerful network members. Because networks are based on a voluntary agreement between organizations, the network manager—if the network has one—often has very little formal authority over what organizations do. In some cases, the more powerful organizations may absorb the work of the network.

Such powerful organizations often recognize that the network’s programs fall within their core competency area and that it may be more efficient to run them independently of the network. For example, in two education networks we studied, the school district internalized the network’s work. At the Hartford Partnership for Student Success in Connecticut, a new superintendent of schools was so impressed by the community schools project that they decided to internalize the work and commit to funding the initiative. The superintendent expanded the work to other schools, increasing the number of students receiving services. Although the work would live on within the schools, the network played a diminished role. Similarly, My Brother’s Keeper, of Mount Vernon, New York, started as a network project, but the school district, the receiving agent for funds from the state, took it over. Because the district had to show results for its work to the funder to continue receiving funding, it found that running programs internally was easier than working with the network’s diverse community coalition.

Meeting fatigue leads to member burnout | Many of the networks we have studied are aware that they are trying to satisfy a series of conflicting demands. In one of the most common dilemmas, network leaders try to demonstrate their progress to a community eager for widespread social change by highlighting the network’s smaller achievements. However, the flip side of these initial projects is that network leaders often have a difficult time launching something quickly if many stakeholders are involved. Network researchers refer to this difficulty as a tension between network efficiency and inclusion.7 Many of the networks we followed chose to manage this dilemma by hosting regular meetings open to any interested stakeholders. In the short run, these gatherings can energize people and provide a sense of transparency and inclusion when open to all. However, meetings are time-consuming, and no one can attend every one of them, despite network leaders’ best efforts to hold meetings at convenient times and in easily accessible places. So, over the long term, they can lead to burnout among members.

Take the example of Education for All,8 another community-focused network aimed at improving educational outcomes from early childhood to college and career readiness. In an effort to be accessible to both organizational leaders and community members, Education for All hosted three different types of gatherings—meetings for organizational leaders to make decisions relevant to their work, large informational meetings for those who wanted updates but were perhaps less involved in network activities, and meetings for action teams composed of organizational or community members who wanted to be more involved. Sensitive to concerns that people might feel behind if they missed a meeting, they even held some informal catch-up sessions before the informational meetings—meetings to get caught up on previous meetings. Although they had intended to be inclusive, Education for All leaders eventually acknowledged that “meeting fatigue” took a toll on participants.

Networks frequently experience member turnover—something we’ve long recognized in our research.9 Despite many ways to get involved, no meeting structure guarantees participation from or a sense of inclusion among all network stakeholders. Education for All leaders were dismayed that some viewed their inclusive meeting structure as a substitute for network progress. Network leaders discussed their efforts to recruit community participants in one meeting, only to learn that their meeting structure put off those people. Many community members believed that, instead of promoting social change, “all [the network does] is talk.”

The Preparatory Work of Resilient Networks

Whether members become fatigued or a network loses its funding, crossroads moments put the network’s future on the line. The network must either significantly change how it operates or dissolve. However, our research found that some networks engage before the crossroads moment arrives in practices that make them more resilient. Such networks focus on reducing risks associated with centralized network leadership, ambiguous theories of change, and inadequate attention to conflict management. In short, resilient networks make investments to insulate their network from the shock of a crossroads moment. We offer three general recommendations based on the strategies that have proven effective.

Consider decentralizing your network’s leadership. | Any resilient network must withstand the turnover of individual members, including its transformational or founding leaders. Some of the networks we studied relied on centralized leadership. This approach depends heavily on a lead or “backbone” organization, in which network leaders typically make decisions in consultation with other network members. In centrally governed networks, leadership changes typically disrupt the network.10

Alternatively, some networks relied on decentralized leadership structures that distributed governance across the network. Our research found that these networks were more resilient to the shock of a crossroads moment. Consider the Family Success Alliance in Orange County, North Carolina, which focuses on breaking the cycle of poverty, and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in Marshalltown, Iowa, which focuses on improving third-grade reading scores. Both networks rely on decentralized structures that enable network activity to continue even as core leaders exit. In both networks, decentralized leadership also included empowering different types of stakeholders. At the Family Success Alliance, for instance, the involvement of different organizations to oversee programming and the involvement of community stakeholders—such as a parent council—ensured different types of players with leadership roles, rather than just a network figurehead. In Marshalltown, empowering community coalitions and building ties between different members enabled the network to keep going after its original leader, who had been at the helm of a local organization for 40 years, retired.

Identify and align the network’s theory of change with resources. | Some networks never identify exactly how their activities will lead to the social impact they want to achieve. By identifying its theory of change, a network can better weather changes in funding, leadership, operations, and more, and can ask how it can continue to act in a way that supports its theory of change, even if it has to pivot from its original plan.

As researchers who have long studied collaborative networks and occasionally participate in such activities, we understand the tendency to overestimate participants’ goodwill.

Networks should start by determining which of the five theories of change they embrace, but they shouldn’t stop there. Robust networks map their theory of change using backward mapping, where they identify their goal and how the outputs of their activities influence that goal.11 The most robust networks identify leading and lagging indicators of success so that they can test the validity of their theory of change.

Such a process requires network leaders to be realistic about how their theory of change corresponds to the resources they possess or can cultivate. Crossroads moments typically have to do with resource fluctuation or network conflicts among members or the community. But before crossroads moments occur, network leaders might reflect on whether they have the resources they need to sustain the network. In an era where nonprofit organizations and social impact initiatives are often charged with doing more with fewer resources, choosing a particular theory of change can even be liberating. Such a decision can free the network from what it doesn’t do well to focus on what it does well. Articulating a theory of change also offers the benefit of accountability to funders and community stakeholders interested in supporting or evaluating the network’s efforts.

Project-based theories of change generally require fewer resources, and over time projects can run independently of the network that birthed them. Systems alignment, by contrast, is a theory of change with a long time horizon. Network leaders who reach for systems alignment supported by short-term grants or without the participation of government leaders are in a precarious position. Like undercapitalized businesses, networks that fail to align their theory of change with their existing resources are more vulnerable to dissolution.

Establish approaches to dealing with conflict. | As researchers who have long studied collaborative networks and occasionally participate in such activities, we understand the tendency to overestimate participants’ goodwill. Many networks assume that a shared interest in improving educational or health outcomes, for instance, will be strong enough to overcome any potential discord.

Conflict is fundamental to networks. Disagreements inevitably arise between individuals and among organizations with different goals and operating procedures. Community members may not embrace the network’s approach. One of the best preparations for conflict is to adopt formal decision-making processes that build in an expectation that decision-making is intended to be active or inclusive, such as consensus decision-making.12 Consensus decision-making takes a little more time, and that may discourage network members eager to see changes in their communities. But the process ensures that network members are heard, understand how decisions are made, and are less likely to leave because of the way a decision was resolved. Formal decision-making processes help balance powerful interests in the network and create a standard procedure to handle many types of conflict.

Network leaders should also cultivate skills in conflict management. Leaders should learn about conflict assessment, a process in which managers determine the nature of the conflict and possibilities for intervening. They should evaluate their conflict-management styles and learn specific strategies, such as perspective-taking or shuttle diplomacy.

In addition, we’ve seen some networks benefit from a third-party mediator when the conflict exceeds the network leaders’ skills or when conflict seems particularly entrenched. When AgeWell Pittsburgh, for instance, anticipated a conflict over shutting down or repositioning programs to fit the network’s goals better, it used another agency to keep the partners engaged.

At the Crossroads

Social impact leaders find it difficult to admit that they have reached a crossroads moment. They typically experience shock and grief over the loss of the way the network operated in the past. They wonder how this moment could have come to pass. Effective leaders recognize the moment and tell the truth about it. They use it to answer fundamental questions, such as:

  • Why does our network need to exist?
  • What social impact do we seek to make, and what’s our theory of change?
  • How should our network make decisions?
  • How will we fund the work?

Leaders can sometimes answer these questions quickly, especially when their network has already prepared for such a crisis of confidence. If the network has already articulated its theory of change, how it will make difficult decisions, and its value to the community and network members, it can take the crossroads moment as an opportunity to revisit and recommit to network goals. In networks where answers to these questions are ambiguous or constantly changing, a crossroads moment can be crippling and require months of conversations to reconstitute the network, if it happens at all.

Consider the Coalition for New Britain’s Youth, a cradle-to-career education network focusing on college or career readiness in Connecticut. When we began talking with this network in 2017, it had been operating for about 16 years and had a backbone organization with a few staff, including an executive director. When we interviewed the network in 2020, it had experienced a crossroads moment. The staff had left the organization, and the network had embraced a new mission, vision, values, and structure. While the coalition had previously focused on educational outcomes, the new mission and values focus on supporting entire families and centering youth voices. However, the most significant change was that funders were asked to no longer participate in coalition meetings, as they had always done. Instead, they were encouraged to participate in a separate funder-input group. The transition required more than a year.

Not every network has the same options during a crossroads moment. The type of crossroads moment and the decisions networks make before facing one determine their options. We call this principle “path dependence.” A network that adopts an entirely new governance structure, mission, or theory of change isn’t simply rewinding the clock or starting from scratch. Reconstituting a network is often more difficult than starting a network.

For example, networks with project, policy, or catalyst theories of change experience crossroads moments differently from networks with learning or systems-alignment theories of change. In our research, networks that require member organizations to take on tasks beyond their daily operations or normal activities are more vulnerable to crossroads moments. Participating in joint campaigns, for example, is often outside the normal domain of organizations. Catalyst theories of change, in particular, frequently require network members to look beyond their local efforts to scale up their impact.

A crossroads moment often results in closure if the network operates a single program, like Ready, Set, Parent! Indeed, when insurance companies reduced parents’ time in the hospital, partners no longer had the financial resources or time to support the program. Ultimately, the partnership dissolved. That the program ended is no reflection on demand for the program or for the partners’ efforts—Ready, Set, Parent! was awarded the Lodestar Foundation’s Collaboration Prize. But a record of success and a roster of committed partners is not always enough to sustain a network through a crossroads moment.

Networks that rely primarily on learning and systems-alignment theories of change focus on improving the existing operations of the organizations involved. Those improvements may come through acquiring better practices or aligning efforts with other programs. Both of these theories of change support existing organizational work and, as such, are less vulnerable to crossroads moments.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a crossroads moment for many of the networks we studied, testing their resilience and flexibility. For example, during the first year of COVID-19, our research team interviewed staff at 11 local AmericaServes networks. As we mentioned, these networks provide no-wrong-door referrals to 21 different types of benefits, programs, and services, ranging from food to housing to spiritual enrichment. This system means that clients are never told they need to contact someone else to receive that service, because any provider is the right one to make the referral. During the pandemic, many of the member organizations that served veterans closed their doors at least for a time and had staff work remotely, but their networks quickly adapted to emerging needs with new strategies to fulfill the same goals.

There’s no way to fully insulate a network against a crisis—and, indeed, no network serious about social impact should expect to achieve its goals without overcoming obstacles.

PAServes, an AmericaServes network, could no longer do in-person outreach to find veterans with needs. What’s more, one of the network’s partner organizations couldn’t offer its programs any longer because they wouldn’t work online. So PAServes pivoted. It pulled lists of veterans it had seen at community events and began using email marketing to make them aware of available resources for food and basic services. It encouraged its closed partner program to offer food and medicine delivery—something it had never done before. And it added a new, in-depth intake screener to address more co-occurring needs (e.g., needs for housing, food, and employment assistance) at the same time, improving its efficiency in dealing with the new influx of clients. Because PAServes knew how its network made a social impact, by connecting veterans to multiple services that would meet their needs, it could pivot quickly. And because the veteran-servicing organizations recognized that PAServes connected veterans to the services they already offered, they continued to invest in the network.

A More Resilient Network

What is it for a network to negotiate a crossroads moment well? One network we studied, Voyage, of Wilmington, North Carolina, stands out. Voyage’s theory of change is creating pathways for successful youth and families. Voyage features a hybrid theory of change composed of multiagency coordination (i.e., project-based) and its signature program of community outreach advocates (i.e., systems alignment). A community outreach advocate works with a family to identify their assets and goals. Together, they work on an action plan for success, and the advocate helps connect the family to appropriate benefits, programs, and services that members of the network provide.

In the years preceding its crossroads moment, Voyage took a few steps that later served the network well. First, Voyage leadership described its theory of change in its founding documents and website so that its approach was known to all. Second, Voyage assembled multiple action teams and community councils. In doing so, it decentralized its leadership by spreading roles and responsibilities across the network, rather than overrelying on one central figure. Third, Voyage addressed conflict threatening the network’s viability in its early stages. When local nonprofits were concerned that the network would undermine organizational efforts—a familiar conflict in our research—Voyage took the time to work through these concerns and build trust.

Voyage’s crossroads moment began when a transformational leader left the network. The new executive director pivoted the network to a more holistic approach, which looked at the relationships, family, communities, and institutions that influenced its everyday lives. It changed its name to reflect its transformed values, from the Blue Ribbon Commission to End Youth Violence to Voyage. The network has continued to grow since the transition, more than doubling the total of students in its program and significantly expanding the number of families it serves. In 2017, about 30 organizations participated in the network; by 2019, that number had increased to 51. Voyage’s experience, steeped in adequate preparation, stands in sharp contrast with The Literacy Organization.

Network leaders can be confident that they will eventually experience a crossroads moment, our research suggests. Sometimes such leaders can anticipate these moments, while other times, a crisis will blindside. Some networks will close, either because the effort has run its course or because the network is not built to survive the crisis. Other networks will adjust and thrive. A period of strategic retreat is not wasted on networks that can pivot. In this way, network leaders demonstrate that the network is receptive to the needs of members and the community and focused on the true value that it has to offer.

There’s no way to fully insulate a network against a crisis—and, indeed, no network serious about social impact should expect to achieve its goals without overcoming obstacles. But resilient networks navigate these moments, confident that they can continue serving their communities. The crossroads moment may leave them transformed, but they emerge more focused on their theory of change and values than before.

Read more stories by Michelle Shumate & Katherine R. Cooper.

1 The names of the organization and the executive director have been changed to protect their identity.

2 Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact, “The Networks for Social Impact in Education,” 2021,

3 Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper, Networks for Social Impact, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

4 Michelle Shumate, Mapping the Navigation Systems of Pennsylvania: Opportunities for the Future, Social Impact Network Consulting, 2022.

5 Yuri Cartier, Caroline Fitchenberg, and Laura Gottlieb, Community Resource Referral Platforms: A Guide for Health Care Organizations, Social Interventions Research and Evaluation Network, University of California San Francisco, 2018.

6 Deborah Agostino, Michela Arnaboldi, and Martina Dal Molin, “Critical Crossroads to Explain Network Change: Evidence from a Goal-Directed Network,” International Journal of Public Sector Management, vol. 30, no. 3, 2017.

7 H. Brinton Milward and Keith G. Provan, A Manager’s Guide to Choosing and Using Collaborative Networks, IBM Center for the Business of Government, 2006.

8 The name of the organization has been changed to protect its identity.

9 Katherine R. Cooper and Michelle Shumate, “Interorganizational Collaboration Explored Through the Bona Fide Network Perspective,” Management Communication Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, 2012.

10 Rong Wang, Katherine R. Cooper, and Michelle Shumate, “The Community Systems Solutions Framework,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2020.

11 Maoz Brown, “Unpacking the Theory of Change,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2020.

12 Seeds for Change, *Consensus Decision Making: A Guide to Collaborative Decision-Making for Activist Groups, Co-ops, and Communities* (2nd edition), 2020.

Michelle Shumate is the founding director of the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact (NNSI), a research lab dedicated to maximizing the impact of nonprofit networks. She is a professor in Communication Studies and associate faculty at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is also the coauthor of Networks for Social Impact.

Katherine R. Cooper is an assistant professor of communication studies at DePaul University. Her research focuses on nonprofit organizations, interorganizational collaboration, and the intersection of organizational and community interests in response to social problems. She is also the coauthor of Networks for Social Impact.

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