Guest Blog

The Importance of Supporting Network Leaders

– by Sara Allen, Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative

April 27th, 2023

Gathering and supporting those on the frontlines of change is more and more vital as the world becomes increasingly complex and intertwined.  It is one of the surest bets to make lasting systemic change.

A great example of this important work was recently highlighted by Jenna Hanauer at the Jim Joseph Foundation, in her reflections on the Prizmah Conference that brought together leaders, experts, and funders, among others, to engage, discuss, and collaborate on the future of Jewish day schools. Her piece highlights the great benefit–and desperate need–of these field-wide convenings to bring people together to address systemic challenges and opportunities.

We must equally support and accelerate those professionals who make this critical work happen: the leaders of vibrant network organizations. There is no readily available course or easily accessible way to learn the skills needed to lead these organizations effectively. In my role as executive director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, powered by Jewish Federations of North America, I know the challenges and bandwidth required to maintain relationships with members of network organizations, to understand the through-lines among the members’ work, and to capitalize on the opportunities for collective impact. It also can be lonely to head a network organization – it’s a role not easily understood; and, while we foster relationships, we must maintain boundaries. I often think how beneficial it would be to have a “network of networks,” which would be a place to share the necessary tools needed to do this work effectively. Moreover, by supporting the network leaders themselves though education, training and resources, we can vastly accelerate field-wide change.

At the heart of some of the most sophisticated, large-scale solutions to social problems are some of the most accomplished leaders you’ve never heard of: network entrepreneurs.
– Stanford Social Innovation Review

This quote embodies a philosophy that has defined my career. As the head of the Funder Collaborative, it has become clear to me that weaving effective networks, and planning thoughtful convenings, are an essential step towards galvanizing a field.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the ripple effects of weaving individuals, each working on similar and related topics–and building a culture of trust and cooperation. This is the act of field-building.  The Funder Collaborative has been so successful in this work because we see the world as interconnected. We believe that solutions–and the bold new ideas that make lasting change–come from the community. A critical first step is convening: an immersive learning and transformative experience which weaves a community. Done well, actions ring clear and people are purposefully engaged and empowered to achieve a vision for change. It also serves to amplify the voices of those who hold the most imaginative solutions to our most pressing challenges – the people who are closest to the work on the ground.

At each convening of this network, we take the time to ask questions, listen closely, nurture learning and inspire action. From my experience, the power of effective convenings exist outside the bounds of time: a well-designed user experience begins long before the gathering opens, and a well-crafted agenda sets the stage for efforts that continue long after the participants pack up.

There are countless creative and impactful ways to maintain communities year-round. Weaving amongst individuals, AI-powered networking, smaller virtual or in-person gatherings, continued education, frequent relevant communication, and lifting stories from the field infuse energy in the group over various touchpoints. By elevating and championing community voices, we reinforce commitment to work on the ground.

This “playbook” for community-building–gleaned from years heading the Funder Collaborative–has applications for any network or community. Steps like first identifying potential community members, earning these members’ trust as both a leader and in the idea of the network, and fueling participation by finding and providing value were fundamental building blocks of BeWell, the Jewish community’s coordinated response to the youth mental health crisis. BeWell’s national Resiliency Roundtable–the only forum that brings together education and engagement professionals with clinicians in Jewish settings to reach and support Jewish youth–meets monthly to share best practices, problem-solve, and collaborate. It is a model being replicated in nearly 20 communities across the country. Participating organizations and individuals are stronger as a result of the network leadership best practices that are infused in day to day work, education, and convenings.

There are many other issue areas to which these and other steps can be applied. I welcome the opportunity to share concrete skills that may be useful to other network leaders. Please also reach out if you lead a network and are interested in connecting with me and others – [email protected]. As a driver of social change, I have spent years honing and championing this approach, and I am always inspired by its impact. I applaud the tireless efforts of network entrepreneurs and organizations, as well as the funders for recognizing their long-term benefits.

Sara Allen is Executive Director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, powered by JFNA.