It Matters How You Do It: NNSI’s High-Impact Networks Campaign

Today’s nonprofit landscape is full of social impact networks– but not all of them are effective. Even if a network is making a difference in their community, there is always room for growth. In a landscape saturated with networks addressing a plethora of wicked problems, communities want to see impacts that are beneficial and substantive. When a network engages in high-impact practices, their operations thrive. High-impact networks have strong theories of change that are supplemented by their network design, manage their networks effectively, develop strong sustainability plans to overcome change, and utilize data to support their impact. Here at NNSI we’re thrilled to introduce our new High-Impact Networks campaign, aimed towards aiding networks in their missions to make more advanced and substantive impacts. By signing on to follow one of our five high-impact practices, networks earn a badge certifying their achievements and can display their expertise to stakeholders and fellow networks alike.

Practice 1: Identifying Your Theory of Change

A network’s theory of change refers to the way a network chooses to engage the problem they are aiming to address. Some networks only have one main theory of change that they follow and base their practices around, while others prefer to use multiple approaches to engage a problem. When networks pursue multiple approaches, they can either engage these approaches simultaneously or sequentially. Researchers Michelle Shumate and Katherine Cooper describe the five most common theories of change that networks embrace in their book, Networks for Social Impact.

  • Project-based theories of change are centered around the creation and delivery of a new program or product that a network produces through joint activity. This theory of change is the least complicated in that its social impact is dependent on the creation and success of the project.
  • Catalyst-based theories of change involve networks scaling up practices that have already proven effective, such as an individual organization’s successful model being replicated and adapted to serve multiple communities within the network. 
  • Policy-based theories of change operate with the aid of government lobbying to promote legislative and regulatory change. Networks following this theory of change engage in collective action to achieve greater influence over policy than any individual organization could alone, and their social impact is contingent on the success of their advocacy. 
  • Learning-based theories of change emphasize the quality improvement of a network’s existing practices. Within these theories of change, community leaders are responsible for learning new practices that will better their organizations’ operations and adopting them into their own networks. 
  • Systems-alignment theories of change uncover service gaps that networks must fill through systematic appraisal of the network’s operations and adjustments of joint organizational efforts. Social impact is based on networks establishing more comprehensive approaches that serve broader environments. 


Practice 2: Align Your Network Design With Your Theory of Change

Once a network has a solid comprehension of their theory of change, they need to ensure that the design of their network is reflective of it. Network design refers to how organizations align and collaborate to better address wicked problems facing their communities. The structure of a network’s design might allow networks to better adapt to change, more comprehensively fulfill their mission promises, or grow both their influence and their outreach. In many cases, elements of design are what enable networks to achieve greater social impact. When networks aren’t designed in ways that support and enhance their theories of change, results are not as effective or efficient as they should be. Additionally, network design must ensure the survival of the network– organizations must find a balance between pursuing collaborative work without sacrificing their own autonomy, and consistently examine the alignment of their goals. Network leaders and stakeholders must base their design off of their theory of change, asking themselves which structures would be most effective in fulfilling their mission. 


Practice 3: Establish Effective Network Management Processes

It takes a village to keep a network running smoothly. In networks that include many different stakeholders, it can be easy for voices to be drowned out in the crowd or for certain stakeholders to blend into the background. Conflict is inevitable, even within networks– not everyone will agree on everything all the time. When conflict surfaces between stakeholders, a small disagreement can prove disastrous for the unity of a network. High-impact networks are those in which members and leaders are confident that their management processes will keep operations running smoothly.


Practice 4: Develop a Sustainability Plan

When engaging in joint work, different players in a network need to ensure that their impact remains sustainable. Change in networks is inevitable and can take on a variety of forms– leadership turnover, the loss of key funders, etc. By developing a sustainability plan, networks can ensure they stay resilient in the face of these changes (or, as we call them, “crossroads moments”) and continue to make an impact in their communities. Our Sustainability Plan Toolkit offers networks guidance on how to address and acknowledge change when it occurs, as well as tactics for how to make sure that change doesn’t derail network operations completely. To survive and thrive through these crossroads moments, there are preemptive decisions and practices that networks can implement to strengthen their resiliency. When leaders want to ensure their networks are prepared for the challenges that crossroads moments pose, they must make investments that insulate their networks from radical shock and strategize their next move.


Practice 5: Use Data to Support Your Network’s Social Impact

In today’s technological landscape, data is an invaluable asset. When network leaders work to establish their theory of change, data can help support and amplify their messaging and actions. Some possible uses for data include providing evidence on whether the network is producing results consistent with their theory of change, determining which operations of the network are or aren’t correlated with desired results, and deciding how a theory of change may need to be adapted based on results seen in communities of interest. However, many networks are not yet equipped to collect and/or analyze this data. Sifting through data to measure a network’s impact is a tough job. Although frameworks exist to help networks make meaningful assessments from their data, it can be easy to lose track of the core questions necessary to determine whether a network is truly achieving their theory of change.


High impact networks are better equipped to prompt change in their communities by leveraging their resources in ways that make a tangible difference. When operating efficiently, high impact networks can improve coordination across stakeholder groups and inspire the engagement of their partner organizations to create sustainable change. 

Why would you want to be a high impact network? Because it matters how you do it. Prove to yourself and your communities that you know how to do it— how to prompt change, how to spark collaboration, how to make a difference. Prove to yourself and your partners that your network can make a sizable impact by signing on to our High Impact Network Campaign. Choose which practice you want to pursue, and take concrete steps towards reaching your goals. Upon completion of your practices, your network will be awarded a badge to certify your position as a High Impact Network. Sign on today!