Considering Community: What’s a social-impact network?

Posted by Lou Woodley, Community Engagement Director – Trellis and Program Director – AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program

This post originally appeared on Social in silico.

What’s a social-impact network?

This week I’ve been reading “Connecting to change the world” by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland. It’s a focused, practical guide to building a very specific type of community – a social-impact network.

Whereas the word community has now been adopted for somewhat ambiguous use in a wide variety of scenarios involving groups of people, a social-impact network has a clear definition. It’s a collection of collaborators who are working together in some way to address a complex social issue.

Social-impact networks are self-organising – with decision-making distributed across the networks and with a structure that may change rapidly (such as the formation or closure of working groups).

Why are social-impact networks necessary?

Social problems such as climate change are often wicked problems – they’re complex, evolve over time and require novel, adaptive solutions. As the authors state, “Generative social problems require generative responses – learning, innovation and adaption over long periods of time. That’s precisely what generative social-impact networks are designed and managed to do.”

In short, by bringing together different individuals motivated by social good but without traditional organisational constraints, social-impact networks can provide the productive, creative solutions needed to tackle complex issues.

Woven paper
Netweavers knit together connections in social-impact networks. Image credit: Ryan Robinson on Flickr

And what aren’t social-impact networks?

The authors also identify four things that social-impact networks differ from:

i) Online social networks / social media tools

Not all users of these large-scale sites are concerned with social impact, plus it’s the platform providers that create and enforce the usage guidelines, not the network members.

ii) Coalitions or alliances

According to the authors, coalitions or alliances typically form to address a specific issue and then either disband once the issue has been addressed or persist and morph into a social-impact network.

In thinking about the coalitions that we work with at AAAS, I’d argue that most of them would like ultimately to be social-impact networks but are still in the early stages of network formation, where members are gathering and starting to get to know one another.

iii) Associations

Associations exist to provide their members with various services and resources, usually in exchange for a membership fee. While many of these services can be for broad social benefit, they’re not usually social-impact networks because it’s association staff rather than the members who do the key coordinating and programmatic work on behalf of the membership.

I’m curious whether there’s room for this situation to evolve given the growing interest from associations in providing online networking opportunities for members. How many associations have a clear vision of what the end benefits of those networks might be – and how many of their members are looking for a social-impact network?

iv) Social movements

Social movements are larger and more sprawling than social-impact networks which are focused on actions to achieve specific outcomes.

This is probably the fuzziest of the distinctions, because it’s clear that there’s overlap between the two. For example, science advocacy might be described as a movement that has risen in awareness in the current political climate, but was the March for Science the start of a movement or a transient social-impact network? Given the involvement of various associations and coalitions, and the lack of clarity about what happens next, it doesn’t seem a simple distinction to make – and it’s perhaps in watching how science advocates continue to interact that the structures will become clearer.

Do you belong to, or have you participated in a social impact network – or is this what you’re looking to create in your role as a community builder?

Does it help to give your group a more precise name rather than simply calling it a community?