Networks and equity

Group of people standing indoors

Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have reminded the country about the inequality that is woven into the fabric of many countries, especially the United States. Problems like intergenerational poverty and economic inequality, chronic and infectious disease, home flooding, and educational outcomes are all marked by the systemic racism that plagues the country. Leaders forge networks to reduce or end these wicked problems.

But are networks themselves part of the problem? Some have argued that particular network designs, like collective impact, exacerbate inequality rather than alleviate it. They note that network designs that focus on “grasstops” rather than “grassroots” promote solutions that the communities they purport to help do not want. Networks that only include senior leaders of government, nonprofits, and businesses over-represent white, upper-class individuals and under-represent people of color and those with lower economic status. In response to these critiques, collective impact thought leaders have argued that equity, although neglected in early collective impact literature, should be a pillar in its enactment.

Community psychology research has examined the ways that community engagement promotes the empowerment of marginalized communities. We highly recommend Brian Christensen’s 2019 book Community Power and Empowerment for a full treatment of this research. For a shorter take, we recommend this article in Nonprofit Quarterly. However, until recently, there has been very little research extending the work on organizational empowerment to coalition empowerment.

At NNSI, we’ve been studying 26 education-focused networks around the United States. We’ve featured some of them in our Better Know a Network Series.  We classify networks as being in the transactional, transitional, or transformational stages of addressing equity. The transactional stage refers to when networks communicate with and interact with the community to inform them. Networks in transitional stages focus on two-way engagement, allowing the community to play a more significant role in the direction of targeted goals. Finally, transformational networks allow community stakeholder to frame the issues and problems and integrates community members into every aspect of coalition work.

From NNSI research and the broader research on organizational empowerment, we’ve identified four areas where networks can promote equity.

  • Community involvement. The most studied aspect of organizational empowerment is the involvement of community members in shared decision-making and their consistent and meaningful inclusion. One of the critical questions to ask in these dimensions is how many community members from impacted areas are in key decision-making positions in your network? 
  • Communication strategy. The medium and methods that networks choose when communicating with the community are reliable indicators of their incorporation of equitable practices. When networks primarily rely on one-way communication by sending out reports, posting to social media, and creating a monthly newsletter, they do little to encourage equity. Instead, two-way communication that informs the network’s strategy as much as the network seeks to educate the community is central for equity practices. One of the critical questions to ask in this dimension: Does your communication strategy impact your network strategy or just tried to explain it?
  • Goal setting. When networks make equity one of the explicit goals of their action, they are more likely to be responsive to the community. These goals should be concrete, outcomes-based, and actively monitored. In many cities we studied, the disaggregation of data and setting equity goals set a network on a path toward greater community engagement. The critical question for this dimension is: Do your goals focus on improving a problem for everyone or do they recognize that outcomes are not equal for everyone now?
  • Social Problem Framing. When networks frame a social problem, they choose to include or exclude an empowerment orientation. When they do so effectively, they demonstrate that they understand how social issues impact marginalized populations differently. When networks frame social problems in terms of “providing better services,” they ignore the underlying power structure that creates inequity. In contrast, when social issues are framed based on structural barriers like racism, poverty, and legal rights, they do more to promote equity and encourage empowerment.  The critical question here is: Does your network treat the problem like better market offerings can address it, or must systems change?

From these four areas, we hope that network leaders can find room for improvement. We’ve included a diagnostic chart for leaders. None of the networks that we studied were in the transformational stage in all of the dimensions. Because we studied these networks over time, we found that many moved from transactional to transitional to transformational over time, suggesting that for some networks that equity is a process.

In short, networks are not more problematic than other types of organizations for equity. However, networks can reinforce racism and inequity through their practices. Without paying attention to the unintended consequences of their efforts, they can harm the communities that they strive to help.

Table describing the stages of coalition equity

Further Reading

Bowen, F., Newenham-Kahindi, A., & Herremans, I. (2010). When Suits Meet Roots: The Antecedents and Consequences of Community Engagement Strategy. Journal of Business Ethics, 95(2), 297–318. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-009-0360-1

Christens, B. D. (2019). Community Power and Empowerment. Oxford University Press.

Christens, B. D., Butterfoss, F. D., Minkler, M., Wolff, T., Francisco, V. T., & Kegler, M. C. (2019). Learning From Coalitions’ Efforts to Promote Equity and Justice. Health Education & Behavior, 46(1_suppl), 110S-114S. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119871551

Himmelman, A. T. (2001). On Coalitions and the Transformation of Power Relations: Collaborative Betterment and Collaborative Empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 29(2), 277–284. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010334831330

Maton, K. I., & Salem, D. A. (1995). Organizational characteristics of empowering community settings: A multiple case study approach—American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 631–656.

Peterson, N. A., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2004). Beyond the Individual: Toward a Nomological Network of Organizational Empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 34(1), 129–145. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:AJCP.0000040151.77047.58

Powell, K. G., Gold, S. L., Peterson, N. A., Borys, S., & Hallcom, D. (2017). Empowerment in Coalitions Targeting Underage Drinking: Differential Effects of Organizational Characteristics for Volunteers and Staff. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 17(1–2), 75–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/1533256X.2017.1304947

Zimmerman, M. A. (2000). Empowerment theory. In Handbook of Community Psychology (pp. 43–63). Springer.