Tips & Tools for Network Instigators: Pivot Tables

A group of 19 literacy organizations were at a meeting in Chicago that was late to start. Two of the organizations’ leaders got to talking about how they were having trouble getting the principal of Schiller Elementary to call them back. Ears perked up and unsolicited utterances of “us too” rang out. Finally, one leader asked the question: “how many of us have a literacy program at Schiller Elementary?” All nineteen hands went up. It was this moment that led the Chicago Literacy Alliance to form. The Chicago Literacy Alliance was founded, in part, to redistribute literacy programs across Chicago Public Schools.

All too often, social impact organizations operate related programs and services without considering how the set of organizations serves the community. Systems alignment, as a theory of change, focuses on organizing programs and services to best serve the needs of clients. When it succeeds, programs that work together are distributed across communities and schools. 

But, tacitly, how should a network leader do that? In this blog, we describe how one such tool, Pivot Tables, can can help network instigators to visually understand the current activity of the network at a given time. This tool comes from Michelle Shumate and Katherine R. Cooper’s book, Networks for Social Impact.

What is a Pivot Table?

Pivot Tables are a visual way to represent the coverage and scope of a group of organizations’ work. Pivot tables allow network instigators to cross-compare the network’s progress (and shortcomings) regarding their network-specific goals, projects, target areas, and organizations. Cross-comparison is achieved by creating tables that visually link:

  • Goals and Projects
  • Target Areas and Projects
  • Goals and Target Areas
  • Organizations and Projects

What is the purpose of Pivot Tables?

Pivot tables help networks in three important ways:

  1. These four tables can help networks identify the overpopulation of some communities, like in the moment that led to the Chicago Literacy Alliance. 
  2. Pivot tables can determine which communities are underserved by programs so that resources can be realigned. They can reveal where network work is invested and help network leaders (and funders) make smart choices about strategic priorities.
  3. They allow the network to see where programs could be fruitfully aligned to work together in a particular community. 

What do Pivot Tables look like?

Pivot tables begin with a project database that stores information to allow for the easy (and non-redundant) ability to cross-compare variables within a nonprofit network. The infographic below outlines the information required in the nonprofit project database to build an effective set of pivot tables.


Once this data has been stored in the project database, network instigators can use this data to construct a useful set of pivot tables. There are four primary types of pivot tables, each with its own purpose: Goal/Project Pivot Tables, Target/Project Pivot Tables, Goal/Target Pivot Tables, and Organization/Project Pivot Tables.

Goal/Project Pivot Tables cross-compare the network’s goals with the current projects conducted by the network.

A completed Goal/Project Pivot Table might look like this:

The left column represents the goals of the network, and the top row represents the specific projects of the network. Squares that are filled represent a project working towards a specific goal. This goal/project comparison identifies which goals receive the most and the least attention within the network. In this example, the goal to “provide low- or no-cost health food options” is getting a lot of attention from network projects. However, only one project focuses on building community social capital. Black spaces represent little or no network activity towards that goal.

Target/Project Pivot Tables cross-compare the target areas of the nonprofit network with the projects worked on by the network.

A completed Target/Project Pivot Table might look like this:

The left column represents the target areas of the network, and the top row represents the specific projects of the network. Again, filled squares represent alignment between variables, in this case, the presence of project work in that target area. Blank spaces show low or no alignment. Comparing projects with target areas allows networks to determine where they possess gaps in service. In this case, there is an obvious project work gap in Neighborhood East. In addition, the Church Food Pantry and WIC Accepting Farmers Market are potential programs that could benefit from coordination. 

Goal/Target Pivot Tables cross-compare the goals of a nonprofit network with the target areas of the network.

An example Goal/Target Pivot Table might look like this:


The left column represents the goals of the network, and the top row represents the geographic target areas of the network. Filled squares represent network alignment in goal focus and geographic target area. Blank spaces represent little or no alignment or goal presence. The goal/target comparison can identify gaps in service. Additionally, this table shows whether the current approach of the network is impacting the correct location, age group, and demographic. Finally, this comparison can show how networks can best allocate their current projects to address specific goals in specific target areas.  

In this case, Neighborhood South is the only community receiving programs that address all three goals. If the theory of change suggests that all three approaches are needed to address obesity, then we might expect to see greater improvements in Neighborhood South and fewer improvements in community obesity in Neighborhood West.

Organization/Project Pivot Tables cross-compare organizational involvement in a network with the projects the network is working on.

An example Organization/Project Pivot Table might look like this:

The left column represents the organizations composing the network, and the top row represents the projects of the network. Filled squares represent an organization actively contributing to a network project. Blank spaces represent projects that an organization has little or no involvement with. If a network does not pay close attention to the specific contributions of network organizations, the network can easily fall into the 80-20 rule—in which 20% of network participants end up doing 80% of the network work. Comparing which organizations are contributing to which project allows network instigators to avoid this 80-20 conundrum by identifying less involved organizations and encouraging them to participate in new ways. Additionally, this comparison can show overworked and overextended networks and allow for proper correction to alleviate their strife.

This matrix suggests that District School B and C might benefit from becoming more aware of the Backpack Buddies program. District School B is in danger of leaving the network altogether.

Overall, Pivot Tables provide a new visual metric for nonprofit networks to assess the activity of their network. This assessment is done by comparing and contrasting goals, projects, target areas, and involved organizations. This comparison exposes network gaps as well as areas of oversaturation. This crucial information, if used properly, can optimize the success and efficiency of a nonprofit network. Gaps and oversaturation are a natural occurrence in collaborative and multi-goal-oriented networks, and there may be an easy fix to these inefficiencies and shortcomings that requires only the knowledge that the gap or oversaturation exists. Pivot tables provide a tool to show this existence. 

The 19 literacy organizations with overlapping difficulty with the principal of Schiller Elementary could have greatly benefitted from pivot tables. Pivot tables would have exposed this glaring overlap, and the involved organizations could tackle the root of the problem. Without pivot tables, this critical issue was left completely unchecked until random luck exposed the problem. In sum, systems alignment through pivot tables would have easily caught the problem and prompted corrective action.