Managing NGO Networks

22/01/2011 at 10:14 pm 5 comments

By Hans Zomer

In the first blog of this series, I argued that NGO networks are very peculiar entities, and that traditional, linear, management theories are inadequate to describe how such networks operate. I went on to say that, for networks to be effective, they need to have a clear focus: a Strategic Plan, a clear articulation of its “added value” and its inherent logic.

In other words, effective networks have a clear “theory of change” (see also this document): clear goals, and a clear idea of what it takes for those goals to be achieved, and a clear indication of how those pre-conditions can be met. Effective networks know how change happens, and how they can bring about change in the most strategic manner.

(See also Dóchas’ own Theory Of Change)

I also argued that effective networks have capable leaders, and a clear, transparent set of rules. And in so doing, they are powerful instruments for social change.


In this second post of the series, I turn to the key question of how leaders in a network can manage change.

If the key characteristic of networks is that there is an absence of formal, hierarchical power bases, then how do managers ensure that the direction of the change is the right one?

Decision-making in non-hierarchical structures

NGO networks are a response to the realisation that the environment in which NGOs operate is complex.

When asked what makes them join a network, most members will mention the pooling of resources as one of the key factors: NGOs join networks because they feel there is “strength in numbers” and they can have influence on Governments and public opinion in ways that individual organisations cannot. Others will highlight the joint learning dimension: by being part of a network, they have access to, and can learn from, the experiences and skills of others.

But these descriptions of the functions of networks overlook the fact that networks are more than mere means to those ends: Networking is more than simply working together – more than the mere collaboration of individuals and institutions on the basis of common interest. Networking has to do with achieving ‘social synergy’ ….Networks represent ‘communities of ideas’, a space for like-minded people to interact on the basis of not only common interests but of conflicting ones too, building mutual trust and learning to accommodate each other’s needs…”.

As a result, the focus of effective networks is rarely simply on outcomes: networks do not have the narrow focus of the classic project manager’s Triangle (Scope, Time and Cost), which can be assured by the thorough application of tools such as Critical Paths, Project Life Cycles, Gannt charts, or even the logframes so popular in Development NGOs. In networks, the focus is as much on the Relationship and the Process, as it is on the Task. And that means that decision-making processes are rarely linear, but always complex.

In networks, not only are decision-making processes different, but also the implementation of decisions already taken follows very different rules.

In contrast to the traditional project management approach, where the amount of flexibility in decision-making decreases as the project moves on, in networks there is always scope – even in the middle of implementation of a project already agreed – for a reformulation of the goals, approaches and processes. Similarly, it happens that some projects get implemented even before a formal decision to do so has been reached.

In short: networks are very particular entities and managers hoping to “project manage” themselves through the challenges are bound to get frustrated.

Decision-making in networks: Leadership versus Group-Think

Change Management text books all highlight that change does not happen unless key stakeholders are able to break open the current situation, and convince enough people that change is necessary. For change to be possible, the status quo must first be “unfrozen”. Or as the guru of change management, John Kotter, says: there must be a sense of urgency.

Similarly, the key for effective decision-making lies in the way members of the network perceive their environment, and how the problems that the network is trying to address are portrayed – Key role for network coordinator is Priming: influencing the problem perception of members.

In networks a collective “narrative” can take hold – an agreed collective view of the world. Such “group think” means there are some shared “certainties” that are simply not questioned. For instance, NGOs in a network could relatively easily end up believing that their biggest problem is an external one (“lack of political will” for instance). Having a common enemy will do wonders for the internal cohesion, the “glue” holding the network together, but it is unlikely to stimulate a genuine analysis of the real challenges facing the members of the network. “Group Think” is very comforting, and therefore hard to break down.

Henry Kissinger once observed that “the alternative to the status quo is the prospect of repeating the whole anguishing process of arriving at decisions. This explains to some extent the curious phenomenon that decisions taken with enormous doubt and perhaps with a close division become practically sacrosanct, once accepted.”

In addition, members might simply decide that it is too much bother to try and change the status quo: Since decision-making in networks is such a painful and often long process, once members have agreed a shared set of ideas, they are unlikely to change easily.

The leadership of the network (ie. the coordinator or the Board) must make sure that members retain a willingness to change. While the average network coordinator has little formal power to influence decisions, he/she has a great amount of power to promote change and to determine the willingness to change: a good network leader is able to create “a sense of urgency”.

To achieve this, there are some simple guidelines and tools, which will be discussed in another of the blog posts in this series.


In this series:

Managing Change in NGO networks

Managing NGO networks

Funding NGO networks

Lessons and Recommendations for Running Effective NGO networks

And another interesting blog, related to this one: “NGOs must form creative alliances to tackle global poverty & injustice


Entry filed under: Development Effectiveness, NGOs. Tags: , , , , , , .

Managing Change in NGO Networks Elections 2011: What to say to Dáil candidates

5 Comments Add your own

  • […] (Read the second article here) […]

  • 2. Richard Ponsford  |  24/01/2011 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Hans,

    Very much enjoying these blogs. I like your analysis of the complex nature of NGO networks and the key components identified for a network to be successful. Interestingly, there are some that are very similar to Keystone’s findings from a survey conducted in 2009 on networks’ members opinions and satisfaction with their networks functioning. Specifically, that networks need a clear strategic plan and that effective networks are built on the accountability and quality of services it provides to participants.

    Related to this is the need for network coordinators and managers to be able to understand if the network is perceived by its members as achieving these goals. Feedback from the network participants of the Keystone 2009 survey indicates that surveying their members and comparing the results against those of other social change networks is a valuable contribution to this problem. Comparing themselves to other networks provided insights into their performance that absolute data failed to do. The networks commented that they were 9.5/10 likely to act on the data and that it has helped them create the needed sense of urgency to push forward changes in the network. In early 2011 Keystone will be repeating the network survey so that more networks can improve their relationships with their members and manage their performance more effectively. Details can be found on the Keystone website and all transnational social change networks are encouraged to sign up.


    Richard Ponsford
    Keystone Accountability

    • 3. Dóchas (Dochasnetwork)  |  27/01/2011 at 3:19 pm

      Thanks Richard. Great input. Hadn’t seen the Keystone survey. I will point out to anyone willing to listen that our work on NGO accountability and codes of conduct was kickstarted by David Bonbright’s address to our AGM, many years ago!

  • 4. Funding a Network « Dochasnetwork's Blog  |  29/01/2011 at 10:03 am

    […] – Managing NGO networks […]

  • 5. Inka Pibilova  |  23/02/2011 at 6:28 pm

    Hi Hans,
    thank you for the insight.
    It would be great if you could ellaborate more on the decision making processes (e.g. in case of you strategy), I am excited to learn more about some tools and guidlines that you mentioned. 🙂
    Keep up the great work!
    FoRS – Czech Forum for Development Co-operation
    (association of 54 development NGOs)


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