moving from ladders of engagement to self-organizing as decentralized leadership

Thanks to June Holley for thought partnership!

In campaign-based organizing, we tend to think of engaging people hierarchically: the goal is to move people up the ladder, progressively increasing their levels of engagement. Transplanting this to network organizing can give people a sense of “the network does all the things for network members,” where a few network facilitators become responsible for creating all engagement activities.

These practices shouldn’t be applied to networks. Why? Network members often experience shifts in capacity to engage in a way that is non-hierarchical. Because network participation often happens outside of the context of a job: we may devote less time to it – more sporadically and perhaps with varying levels of commitment. Network organizers should embrace these factors as part of how networks work, rather than trying to mash organizational thinking into network structures.

So, I’m starting to understand the idea of self-organizing as a decentralized, non-hierarchical version of engagement and leadership. We need to unlock this decentralization and move away from centralized levels of engagement. I say unlock because I think this involves a process of unlearning: doing things differently and practicing new ways of being with each other.

What prevents network members from self-organizing?

  • Not feeling autonomy: having experienced generations of marginalization, disinvestment, and maybe never having seen someone like them in positions of power
  • A narrow definition of leadership that privileges only a very specific type of person and way of interacting to be able to arrive to a position of power
    • A relationship to leadership that trains us to do what we’re told rather than to initiate
  • Resource dams and gatekeeping: only certain people have easy access to resources and/or resources are accessible but only after jumping through flaming hoops
  • Lacking a sense of belonging to the network: why should I contribute? What’s in it for me?
  • Culture – how we understand all of these things (autonomy, leadership, resources) is artificially narrow – we’ve become trained to understand them in certain ways and may have difficulty imagining that they could be different

How do we unlock decentralized engagement?

  • Popular education: training and capacity building for and from within marginalized groups (these can be groups that are literally on the margins of a network, and/or groups of people that have been pushed to the margins of dominant society)
  • Less gatekeeping of funds: innovation funds and shared gifting can be a way for funders and other gatekeepers to begin to practice letting go of control. Decolonial commons and cooperatives are closer to real, community control of resources. (Consider also: reparations!)
  • Communities of practice to unlearn some ways of being and practice new ones – creating new cultures of interacting: specifically anti-racist, feminist, decolonial, and otherwise undoing hierarchies while also being caring and supportive to hold space for change
  • Protocols and practices that break down how to do things – the steps to take to form a project – as an activity that regularly happens in a network
  • Measuring and creating intentional interventions around demographic shifts for who are in positions of power in a network
  • Collecting, sharing, and visualizing data that gives us a real-time picture of where we are in this shift
  • Using network weaving to help people find the “right” person/people to start a project with

Attributes of a network that support self-organizing:

  • Widespread desire and openness to collaborate: it feels easy to meet people who are interested in talking, sharing learning, open to new ideas
  • Self-authorization: you don’t feel like you have to ask for permission
  • Accessible resources (including funds, spaces for discussion, knowledge databases, mentors or coaches, whatever else)
  • Liberatory culture: all network members actively practice undoing oppressions; working across privileges
  • Spaces to learn in: you can see what others are doing, you feel like you can ask questions and get answers; you can see what others are learning
  • Culture of seeing “failures” as rich learning opportunities (plus a shift away from an attitude of seeing these projects as a waste of time/resources)
  • Understanding of how efforts connect to network goals/values/principles
  • Ease of finding the right people to collaborate with and learn from

How can we understand engagement as an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy?

  • Appreciate richness and diversity of engagement, instead of focusing on “how high up” someone gets
    • Should be activities at all levels all the time!
  • Think about *indicators* of engagement like the attributes above – how to create a healthy environment that supports engagement?
  • Culture shift (see “feelings” above)

What activities contribute to self-organizing? / What could a healthy self-organizing ecosystem look like?

I’ve written about flexible formations for networks – in how we can create spaces/containers within networks that allow for variations in size and frequency.

Perhaps a different way to look at it would be to map out outcomes of these containers:

  • Lots of network members meeting people that aren’t the right fit (might help them triangulate to learn who is a better fit, also works to build strength of weak ties which can lead to unexpected outcomes)
  • Some network members meeting people that are the right fit
  • Most people know what’s going on in the network (reading a newsletter, reading activity feeds)
  • Many “failed” experiments from which learnings are harvested:
    • Projects “fail” and that’s not hidden but rather seen as opportunity
    • People learn from other projects
  • Harvesting learning is a part of running a project
  • Many projects at all phases: seed, sprout, plant, fruit, compost
  • Understanding and measuring how projects contribute to systems impact/change and/or contribute to building new/alternative systems

As in any ecosystem, there are many kinds of activity happening at the same time:

  • Small transactions (ex. reaching out to people, connecting people, listening, skills exchanges, resource exchanges)
  • Self-organizing to co-design and implement network structures through circles (ex. innovation funds, equity funds, communities of practice)
  • Self-organizing projects happening in the network’s focal area (ex. food systems, water rights, economic justice, etc.)
  • Ongoing processes such as reflection, sensemaking, and learning
  • Training and capacity building (ex. network weaving, knowledge harvesting)

Network members can start to track these activities and share them back to the full network. Ideally this tracking happens in a way that supports network members to continue doing their work, while at the same time providing aggregated data so the full network can start answering the question: “what’s going on in the network?”

So…the goal shifts from getting to the top of a leadership/engagement ladder to participating in an active ecosystem of autonomous self-organizing, resource flows, and learning exchanges that contribute to the network’s bold systems-level vision.

Flexible formations for networks

Thinking about co-design embedded within a network presents additional challenges. Ideally a design team creates many spaces to engage in co-design – both online and in-person – that allow for maximum input and creativity as well as respond to shifting levels of availability/capacity to participate. What follows is a brainstorm I did with my sister Licia of the list of formations (groups within a network) that enable this. Furthermore, these formations can be organized from a central group, like a design team, or self-organized as they emerge from network members.

Advisory group
Small group that lasts for the length of the project to advise and provide context for the design work; similar to design team but broader
One person does a one-on-one, then takes on work to do other one-on-ones, or takes information to broader group; “train-the-trainer” might fit here
Large group comes together with potential breakout groups, usually in-person
Design team
An ad hoc group that meets throughout the duration of the project (or sub-scope within it) to provide planning insight
Innovation fund
Selected group of projects that are funded for specific outcomes
A conversation between two people
Ongoing focus group
A representatively diverse group of people assembled to participate in a guided discussion about a particular product before it is launched, or to provide ongoing feedback on a political campaign, television series, etc.
Outreach team
Spreads the word about design process and reflections to rest of network
Pop-up focus group
A representative group of people that meets once to provide structured feedback on a specific topic
Seek external expert
Someone reaches out of core network for advice or thought leadership
Small group experiment
An ad hoc group that meets to engage with and provide feedback on a project, product, or part of it
Structured interview
A one-on-one with very specific outcomes
An online lecture with potential Q+A
Working group
Small group of people who meet regularly with specific outcomes in mind; could be called a committee.

Network Mapping and Power

To the extent we are concerned about ushering in a future that looks different than today, we must not only understand how power operates, but seek to shift and democratize it. (I’m using this handout from to ground my understanding of power.)

Network mapping inherently illuminates power.

Network mapping and/or analysis inherently seeks to bring to light several kinds of power. Here are several ways it can include power:

  • Demonstrates where capacity and resources exist in a group of entities
  • Visualizes previously invisible patterns, structures, and dynamics that existed but of which we were unaware
  • Elucidates relationships and pathways for exchange; help understand how things flow through a set of entities (and where they don’t flow)
  • Surfaces gaps like who’s not being represented by providing an overview of a set of entities
  • Supports an understanding of these things as they change over time so we can reflect transparently (rather than anecdotally) on improvements or regression

Network mapping is different and broader than power mapping.

My understanding of network mapping differs from power mapping (for example, see MoveOn’s Community Power Map Guide) in a few ways:

grid from Danielle.
MoveOn’s power grid
  • It’s not necessarily about a campaign victory; network mapping can address power over the long-term in heterogeneous communities
  • Doesn’t have one/few explicit target(s); rather, takes a broad approach to understanding power dynamics within a larger group of entities
  • Network mapping is broader than only looking at power. Taking an example of clustering for power mapping from MoveOn’s page, we can think of several other useful ways of understanding a network, and view those side by side.

Network map credit: Valdis Krebs, copyright 2013 from

Collaboration, Coalition, Networks: What’s the difference?

I’m sure you’ve heard of these three words, but what do they mean if they’re used interchangeably? Read on to learn the key differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks.

At its most basic, collaboration just means working together. In non-profit lingo, collaborations generally include things like information sharing, program coordination, and joint planning (source 1). Two or more organizations get together and have a limited interaction, achieve a mutually beneficial goal like jointly planning an event or learning from each other. Key characteristics of collaborations:

  • a few organizations
  • limited in time
  • not necessarily formalized in any way
  • may be around a shared, specified goal

Can you think of any collaborations you’ve recently been part of or heard of?

Usually formed for a specific, common goal, a coalition involves a group of organizations that get together, share responsibilities, and may disband after achieving their goal. Coalitions exist to bring broader attention and action to a large goal that affects many stakeholders. For example, if a coalition formed to pass or prevent legislation, it would have more leverage than an individual organization, because it can reach more people, access greater resources, and bring different perspectives to the strategy. Often, coalitions are short-lived and end after successfully accomplishing its goal. Key characteristics of coalitions and alliances:

  • multiple organizations
  • usually limited in time
  • usually have a specific goal
  • varying levels of formalization
  • may have a specified convener or facilitator

What goal, larger than your organization’s mission statement, would be best achieved by a coalition?

A network is a set of organizations with diverse relationships, strengths of relationships and trust between them. One way to think about it is like an ecosystem – there are different types of actors, but they work together – some more closely than others. Collaborations and coalitions happen within larger networks. As June Holley writes, in her Network Weaver Handbook: “networks are different than organizations: there is no boss who can fire members if they don’t do their job, there are no weekly staff meetings to ensure that communication and learning are taking place, and there are no teams or departments to organize the work and distribute funds.” Key network characteristics:

  • multiple organizations,
  • no necessary convener,
  • evolve over time and persist beyond goal,
  • not necessarily formal or intentional, but can be,
  • may exist for specific goal, or for broader support function

Armed with the knowledge of the differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks, what is a good next step for your organization to strengthen its relationships? Will you choose a time-bound partnership, facilitate a group toward a common goal, or get to meeting and greeting new peers?

List of sources used: 1. La Piana Consulting, The Partnership Matrix 2. June Holley, Network Weaver Handbook