If you google network, the first result that comes up is a 1976 satire directed by Sidney Lumet. If you dig down the page further, you’ll get to computer networks, how shy people can network, and telecommunication network services. We use the word “network” a lot. It’s in our name. But, none of these results describe what we mean.

Instead, when we talk about networks, we think about collaborations among at least three organizations. There are other terms that people use to describe these efforts, including cross-sector social partnerships, public-private partnerships, collective impact, and coalitions. Often, networks are a response to wicked problems.

Networks exist in the liminal space between hierarchies, like consortiums, and free markets – where actors independently pursue their interests. These organizations stay autonomous, meaning that they maintain their agendas, staff, and resources. However, they are also interdependent – they coordinate their activities, collaborate on joint projects, or integrate their services on behalf of clients. The balance between autonomy and interdependence sets networks apart.

Research on networks demonstrates their advantages – especially in challenging times like we are experiencing today. Nonprofits embedded in networks are more likely to survive market downturns. Organizations are more innovative and have better information about the resources available to them when they have relationships with other organizations. And, networks are nimbler than hierarchies – they can more easily adapt to changing circumstances. Finally, networks promote the more effective distribution and coordination of activities. They can reduce the duplication of services, allow organizations to align their efforts, and reach more stakeholder groups.

In short, networks have significant advantages. If you want to learn more about specific networks that are making a difference, check out our Better Know a Network series. There we highlight particular networks that are making a difference in their communities.

Despite these advantages, networks are also more challenging to lead than traditional networks. As we’ve written about extensively, each organization maintaining its autonomy creates unique challenges. These challenges include organizational goals that are not in alignment, organizations changing at different rates, and network goals conflicting with different organizational goals.

Despite their challenges, we believe the advantages of networks make them worth the effort. At the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact, we study how to make networks more successful. We explore issues like network design, governance, conflict resolution, change, and dissolution.