How Conveners Shape the Future of Collaborative Networks

Navigating modern social challenges, from educational disparities to environmental crises, requires innovative, collaborative strategies. Purpose-oriented networks have emerged as crucial platforms to unite diverse organizations to take collective action against these complex issues. Despite their growing importance, a significant knowledge gap persists around how these networks evolve and sustain their efforts amidst inevitable changes and challenges. 

Enter the role of conveners—the linchpins of these collaborative networks. Conveners are the orchestrators who bring together diverse organizations and guide these coalitions through evolutionary changes. They are the human catalysts and adaptive leaders who enable a group of organizations seeking to make a difference to do so.

A recent study co-authored by NNSI faculty affiliate Katherine Cooper and NNSI’s founding director, Michelle Shumate (among other NNSI alums), explored the convener’s role in steering these networks through periods of change and ensuring their resilience. A qualitative analysis of interviews conducted with 26 conveners of collaborative networks over three years identified the critical activities and strategies deployed by conveners shaping the network’s response to change. Additionally, the network’s founding orientation and the nature of the changes they faced influenced these activities and strategies.

The founding orientation describes why a purpose-oriented network was created. Problem-oriented networks, catalyzed by a direct response to pressing community issues, inherently embody flexibility that predestined them for resilience. The case of the Blue Ribbon Commission in North Carolina, which was created to combat local violence, exemplified how a problem-driven approach can galvanize a collective response deeply rooted in the community’s immediate needs. This orientation fostered a conducive environment for conveners to innovate and adapt, allowing the network to pivot effectively in response to evolving challenges.

Conversely, solution-oriented networks started with a strategic or collaborative framework, seeking to apply this model to a community issue that may still need to be fully defined. Initiatives like the Berkshire United Way and ROC the Future in New York highlighted how such networks, driven by influential leaders, embarked on solving a broadly recognized need like poverty. However, while structured and potentially impactful, this approach limited the network’s adaptability by constraining the convener to a predefined path, even when the landscape shifted dramatically.

The nature and magnitude of changes encountered by networks further delineated the path of their evolution and the strategic responses required by conveners. The study categorized changes into three types: incremental, existential, and in-between, with different implications for convener actions and network resilience. Networks experiencing incremental changes (e.g., minor changes in network membership or problem focus) often view these adjustments as part of their natural evolution, seamlessly integrating them into ongoing activities without significant disruption. This perspective is notably prevalent among problem-oriented networks, where the convener’s flexibility and openness to adaptation play a role in navigating and incorporating change.

In contrast, networks facing existential changes—characterized by profound shifts such as leadership losses or funding crises—encountered pivotal crossroads. These moments compelled a reevaluation of the network’s direction and purpose, challenging conveners to significantly redefine their role and strategy. Here, the foundational orientation became a determinant of resilience; problem-oriented networks may find it easier to adapt and reimagine their path forward, whereas solution-oriented networks might struggle against the constraints of their initial models.

Overall, the resilience of purpose-oriented networks was contingent on the convener’s ability to realign network activities, foster a collective identity, and leverage the strengths of organizational members. Networks like Communities that Care in Franklin County demonstrated that delegating responsibilities and focusing on strategic areas such as data collection empowered networks to sustain their impact, even as they evolved. The convener’s role transcended organization and recruitment; it embodied strategic foresight and adaptive leadership. Whether rooted in a problem-oriented or solution-oriented foundation, the network’s resilience hinged on the convener’s capacity to embrace change, reimagine their approach, and galvanize a collective effort towards enduring impact. 

The findings from this study are particularly relevant as collaborative networks increasingly become vital mechanisms for addressing global and localized issues. The capacity of these networks to adapt, evolve, and sustain their efforts over time is essential to their effectiveness and, consequently, to solve the complex problems they target.

Here are three key action items for network managers to build resilient networks. 

  1. Adopt a Flexible Founding Orientation: Managers should be open to evolving their strategy from being purely problem-oriented or solution-oriented to incorporating elements of both, depending on the network’s evolving needs and external circumstances. This flexibility can help ensure that the network remains relevant and effective in addressing the issues it was created to solve.
  2. Develop and Maintain a Responsive Change Management Strategy: Pre-implemented mechanisms to identify emerging changes, assess their potential impact, and implement appropriate responses will enhance the network’s capacity to adapt to changes without over-reliance on a single convener or organization.
  3. Cultivate Resilience through Diverse Partnerships: Diverse partnerships across different sectors can equip networks with unique resources, perspectives, and strengths to overcome challenges. 

Access the full article here: 

Cooper, K. R., Wang, R., Harris, J. L., Miles, J. P., & Shumate, M. (2024). Leading Resilient, Purpose-Oriented Networks Through Change. Management Communication Quarterly, 0(0).