Re-Post From Trusted Space Blog: GrassRoots Grantmakers Webinar on Community Network Building

Thanks to Janis Foster Richardson of Grassroots Grantmakers who invited Trusted Space Partners to address almost 100 local and community funders from around the country in a 90 Minute Webinar February 21st entitled ” Community Network Building:  What It Is, What It Takes, and Why It Matters for Place-Based Funders”. In follow up, we drafted some responses to the key questions put forth about Community Network Building by these community and local funders. See below:

QUESTION:  As funders, how do we spot organizations or people who are gifted Community Network Builders or are positioned to play an important CNB role? 

Because of the underlying theory and practice of Community Network Building, we believe that everyone can be a gifted network builder or should be encouraged to develop their innate gift/ability to connect with other human beings.   But, we have come to believe that there are some people who, because of a set of life experiences, are better positioned to both spark and steward NEW networks of diverse people, especially in more highly structured environments.   We also believe that there are certain community moments and organizations “ more ripe” for community network building than others.

Search One:  Does the person build authentic, human-based relationships?

The most important quality of a gifted network builder is their ability to enter each circumstance as a whole person or a real human being and not as a person holding a certain title or a position or carrying an unique interest or expertise.  The fundamental ‘lubricant’ of a vibrant community network is the authenticity of exchange and relationships between the people in the network.  Because most people enter exchanges at the community level from a place of fear and timidity or from a place of high purpose and pursuit, we often hide behind out titles or our expertise or our interest to manage this fear or our clear purpose.  The person who is sparking and stewarding a network approach has to model and practice, over and over again, authentic exchanges and relationships  in which he or she is revealing his/her humanity and is open to the humanity of the other person.

We are often asked, what does authentic behavior or an authentic relationship look like in the context of roles like an executive director of a nonprofit.  The answer to this is a work in progress, but here are some behaviors we witness among skilled Community Network Builders:

  • They are very open and easily share information about their personal and professional lives.
  • They are naturally curious about the other person in a way that feels safe and respectful.
  • They remember what they learn about the other person and often circle back to check in on them or make a new connection based on what they learned.
  • They do not talk too much and they do not over-emphasize any position or role or expertise.
  • They reveal their struggles and vulnerabilities to others in the network and know when and how to ask for help.
  • They know how to say “I don’t know” and “No, I can’t.”
  • They know how to say “I am confused or frustrated with what just happened, but want to understand better”.
  • They exhibit a natural sense of joy and happiness flowing from moments of connection with other people.
  • They verbalize their joy in a way that encourages other to open up and make new connections.

Search Two:  Does the person behave a bit like a “Mad Scientist”?

We keep coming back to the image of a mad scientist as one of the best descriptions of a skilled community network builder.  This image invokes – for us, at least – that delicate balance between pursuing with vigor a clear hypothesis, while constantly looking out for new learning and innovation, even if the new learning challenges your original hypothesis.  So often in community we come upon a good idea and we work to implement it fully or worse yet, to replicate it or take it to scale, with no space for continued reflection or learning.  It is only through constant reflection and asking the question of the larger network “What did we learn from that moment” do we really incorporate the voices of those who have alternative views/contributions and arrive at solutions and creations that are meaningful in that particular moment and that particular context.

Another reason we like the image of the mad scientist is that it implies that the community network builder is definitely walking around in the network with his or her opinion or assessment of what might work, while also staying open to the voices and input and contribution of others.  So often, people think that being a community network builder means that we should not offer our views or our opinions it order to give complete “choice and control” to the network.    This is an example of being inauthentic, in our book.   Community network builders inhabit the spaces they are in fully and honestly.  They are one of the network members, just like the next person.   The fact that they also play the role of steward – and not leader – can feel and appear maddening sometimes!  It is clearly a delicate but very fun dance!

Mad scientists are also risk takers and are willing to persevere when others make them feel crazy or resist trying out a new way.   Sparking and then operating inside a new network raises all kinds of issues that are uncomfortable for people used to a more traditional community organization or nonprofit structure.  The natural reaction is to be afraid of the new ways and to resist them, either directly or indirectly.  Community network builders need to be willing to go out on a limb and to encourage others to come with them. These folks leading the way out on the limb can appear at times to be a little crazy or “mad”.

Search Three:  Does the person hold up a steady mirror for others to see?

In the midst of the somewhat chaotic nature of a community network, it is important to constantly hold up the mirror for others to see the good things emerging as a result of the many exchanges taking place and the relationships being formed.  Sometimes the picture in the mirror is about a common message or narrative developing around a moment of opportunity, providing the necessary spark for action.  Sometimes the picture in the mirror is about an innovative and powerful new practice emerging as a result of all of the experimental activity in the network.  Sometimes the picture is a simple reflection of who is engaged in the network and all of the diverse talents and assets represented. These pictures and frames provide the next platform for the network to expand or from which to create a new form, program or initiative.  To do this “holding up a steady mirror” in a consistent and engaging way requires a person who actively listens, makes connections and can articulate the picture back in a manner that others can hear/see and feel inspired by.  It also requires discipline…the discipline of asking open-ended questions in every situation and of everybody, the discipline of making notes to look back on, the discipline of incorporating systems inside the network for collecting stories or “data”, the discipline of taking time to reflect and struggle with inherent paradox and conflicts.  People who talk a lot without asking questions….people who hold firm beliefs about what is true or right….people who have a hard time acknowledging failures and mistakes …..are not the best at holding up a steady mirror.

Search Four:  Are there at least three or four people who share these qualities and who share the vision of a new network?

The most important answer to the question of how to spot a skilled Community Network Builder is that a new network can NEVER be sparked and sustained by one skilled person.  Our collective experience of 40 years of network building tells us over and over again that the innovation of community networks requires a core team of diverse people inhabiting the initial spaces we create and modeling for others the kinds of new behaviors needed, in order to help larger groups of people behave more interdependently with one another.  The team does not have to be large or consistently the same four or five people or equally skilled or positioned in the characteristics mentioned above.  But they do have to have a “fire in their belly” and they have to create a “collective fire in the belly” for the network.

The other reason a team of initial network stewards is needed is because of the huge resistance in existing community and institutional environments and the courage required to create new spaces and environments for exchange/innovation.  We both know that we couldn’t have tried out a new practice or innovated a new community network building device without knowing that we were in the experiment with a group of people…and that we had each others backs no matter what.   Another important characteristic of this core group of network stewards is that they know how to have fun together and to include others in their fun. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of bringing true fun into the work.  It is one of the “magic juices” that keeps diverse people hanging out long enough to develop the trust needed to tackle and persevere the hard work.  And by fun, we do not mean wild parties or big expeditions to an amusement park (of course, this can help), but rather a way of going at the work that is light and pauses on moments to laugh at ourselves and to enjoy each other’s company.

Search Five:  Is the moment ripe for a sparking a new network and long term transformation?

Some community contexts are more ripe and ready for transformation than others.  We discovered that our efforts to plant seeds of a new network and transformation were more effective if the following three ingredients are present:

  1. A Smaller and Contained Community Context: The community context should be small and contained enough that the people inside this community environment bump into each other naturally on a regular basis.  The larger number of direct contacts between those involved creates more opportunity to model new behavior and build the trust needed for others to experiment with new ways of relating to each other.
  1. Collective Pain within the Community Context:  A growing number of people inside the community context should be feeling and talking about a common pain that relates to the current community environment and how it operates.
  1. Positional Power Pain within the Community Context:  Although not essential, it helps if someone with positional power is feeling the collective pain that others are feeling and talking about.

QUESTION:  What are the primary challenges that innovative Community Network Builders  face?  And, assuming that one of these challenges involves money, how can we best position our funding  relationship with Community Network Builders so that we are truly helpful?


It is critical to understand that Network formation is not the same as institution building. It doesn’t comply with the same rules.  It has its own rules. Network formation is much more about building entrenched culture and habits than building institutional infrastructure. For this reason networks require a level of intentionality and careful cultivation on the front end that will pay off downstream.  To the extent that Networks are governed more by say the natural laws of self-actualization and demand , they do not grow in a linear fashion they grow exponentially in direct relationship to the quality of the environment.

Above all, the challenge for funders is the same as it is for network stewards of all kinds – to carve out and then protect the time and space needed for culture and habit to form – while being able to discern at any given time whether that process is going well.  Specifically, Networks need:

  • The kind of space and time needed to work on the underlying soil and fertilizer needed to grow and connect the many “vines” of a new network.
  • Support in helping recruit and retain the kind of people who are skilled at stewarding and skilled at supporting others to be stewards.
  • Help in resisting the natural tendency of everyone – internal and external – to create “forms” and “operating rules” in order to preserve an experimental, risk taking environment.
  • Resources that are specifically set aside for the kinds of expenses associated with soil development and fertilization.

Perhaps more than anything, Networks  need funders to figure out how to be ‘effective champions’ within their institutions as part of their commitment to the unfolding process: to resist the tendency to stay behind walls of professional detachment as a hedging of bets, and fight off the institutional fatigue or impatience that will inevitably come sometime in the 1st or 2nd year of network formation.

QUESTION: Is it appropriate for funders to embrace community network building practices? Or is community network building best done by community residents and community based non-profits?

Yes, there are several reasons why funders can and must embrace, and be actively involved with residents and community based organizations in community network building.

Because community network building is first a network of human beings who decide to be connected across differences, there is no room in a network for the detached “professional helper.”


The principal “human first” means that we don’t deny our positional power or the professional skills or resources that we bring to the table, but that we don’t lead with those things.  Our partner in many things Ms. Audrey Jordan of Boston Rising and recently of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has mantra which is ..”I need to know you care before I care what you know.”  Resources, skills, information – these are all needed and important things but none of those things get used well without trust and none of those things – on their own help to build trust. In fact they can get in the way – especially in the beginning of building relationships.

One of the principals of network organizing is that to effectively lead or steward, one must inhabit the space.


In Community Network Building we talk about “inhabiting” the space. This means that all of those interested and supportive of the network are first, members of the network . There is no us/them relationship.  Those that have a more intensive role in leading or stewarding the network have to be particularly careful to lead from within. This means – in a practical way – actively sharing the work. It also means being a part of the life of the network – learning and shaping the culture and habits that the network is forming. Because in community network building we learn by doing – we are constantly experimenting, reflecting and recycling our learning through the next round of doing. To be an effective partner in stewarding or supporting a network there is no choice but to inhabit, engage and participate. The learning – the insights – the impact are all embedded in the action and the “how.”  Funders, like other Network stewards, have to be as present as possible at these moment of innovation and adaptation and be part of the co-creation process.

To be relevant and impactful, these networks have to be responsive, flexible and adaptive and require leadership that can come together and “do what works.”


The great hope of community network building is that it gets us closer to effective, impactful local environments by obliterating some of the boundaries that are traditional but ineffectual. Another powerful idea in Community Network Building is that we need to build environments where we can “All Bring Our Best Stuff To the Table.” The best ideas, the most resonant action steps, the most creative solutions – should win the day. Networks at their best are extremely tactical on a day to day basis, without having to constantly cut through the underbrush of personality or identity politics. This is exactly the point. All that trust and genuine relationship building ought to be delivering to the environment an easier, more fluid and more rich harmony of voices and partners in action which, in turn yields greater capacity, functionality and creativity.

But for this to happen, those holding positional power – including funders – have to find an authentic voice in the room. A voice that is not driven by positional power (I have the money so I get to say) but one that is not bound by it either (I have the money so I shouldn’t say.)

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