Building Better Networks: Evidence from IRI’s Evaluation Series
Network-based programs are common in the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) space, and they may be designed to achieve a variety of goals. Such programs might foster a network of civic activists to advocate for policy reform or support an association of female government officials to promote women’s political engagement. Yet, while popular, network-focused interventions rarely undergo rigorous evaluation, undermining our understanding of how and under what conditions networks best achieve programming objectives. How do we frame and define the goals of network programs? What program characteristics help catalyze positive results?
To help address this evidence gap, the Evidence and Learning Practice at the International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted a series of ex-post evaluations of network programs to develop a clear definition of a network and guidance on what works best (and what doesn’t) in network programming.
First, we developed an institute-wide definition of a network and distinguished between different types of networks. Based on IRI’s work, we define networks as “a group of individuals or organizations that pursue a shared objective and interact with each other on an ongoing basis.” Next, we used comparative case studies of projects in five countries supporting a total of ten networks to determine the conditions in place when networks achieved their goals. Finally, we translated this evidence into guidance for those designing and implementing network-based programs. While a more extensive evaluation summary is forthcoming, some cross-cutting findings include:
Clearly Define Goals and Responsibilities
Network success relies on members understanding the network’s goal and their role in achieving that goal. Clearly defining the purpose of the network to potential network members ensures the right people participate and network members understand what they will gain from participation. The network should also clearly define roles and responsibilities for members so everyone understands how they will contribute to the network achieving its goal(s).
Pre-existing Trust Levels Affect the Timeline for Results
Preexisting levels of trust within a network should inform program activities and expectations. Because networks rely on relationships, programs may need to invest significant time and resources in trust-building, particularly for newly formed networks. However, building trust takes time. Programs must set realistic expectations with beneficiaries and funders for what the network can achieve within the project lifecycle.
Choose the Right Facilitator
The logistics of managing a group of people with varying interests, goals, and resources require time and effort at a minimum, and ideally charisma, trust, and commitment. Implementers (or the networks themselves) should carefully assess what they need in a network facilitator before selecting someone to play this role. Different networks require different kinds of facilitators. Yet there are some common characteristics to keep in mind, including: experience in the topic or with network programming in general, trust from potential network members, and commitment to the network and its goal(s). Choosing a facilitator with these characteristics increases the network’s credibility and the likelihood that the network will be sustainable beyond the project.
Network Purpose and Structure are Linked
Network goals should inform network structure. Consensus building and decision making are important for all networks, but the necessary degree of structure and clarity of these processes varies depending on the network’s aims. Networks that intend to coordinate actions, like advocacy, require a more defined structure to streamline decision making and keep everyone on the same page, while networks focused on learning and individual capacity building can be more loosely structured.
If you would like to learn more about these findings and recommendations, IRI published the Networks Field Guide (NFG), a publicly available digital tool that provides guidance and resources on networks. The NFG can be used to learn more about designing, implementing, and measuring effective network-based programs.