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Strengthening Regional Networks for International Collaboration

On the second day of the Interaction 2016 Forum this week, I attended the great session Strengthening Regional Networks for International Collaboration. The session convened several local network promoting collaboration among actors based in their states or cities.

Each posner-logo1presenter discussed their particular organization, how they developed, their goals and how to advance more collaboration across regional organizations. Dougslas Vilsack, CEO of the Posner Center discussed how they came to form a co-working space for the international development community in Colorado. Posner has 57 organizations based at the center, ranging in size from 20+employees to entirely volunteer run networks. . They have about another 100 who are members of their network who may not need the space but want to work collaboratively. Collectively the network works in over 100 countries (note make sure to review the wonderful resource guide PCDN Guide to Shared Spaces, Co-Working, and Local International Development Networks that Doug wrote for PCDN).

 

Their goal is not just to be a space, but now they have a collaboration fund that funds joint ideas across the members. They also partner with local universities where some hold classes on development themes. They also have an annual hackathon, training and many other ways to to engage the community.

Kristen Daley, Executive Director of Global Washington, started 8 years ago when a philanthropist who had helped initiate and fund a number of nonprofits realized that none were talking to each other. There were also a growing number of other institutions, such as the Gates Foundation, Academics and others working in the state. The philanthropist conindexvened a meeting with Microsoft, Boeing, Gates and others to see if there was enough interest to sustain collaboration. Since then Global Washington has grown to include 160+ members, including for profits, nonprofits, academic institutions and foundations. Their criteria is potential members need to have a presence in Washington State and conducting work to improve lives in developing countries. The organization started as a conveners at least to bring people together. Over the past few years, they have tried to shift other activities to add to the value proposition can they give to their members, which run from completely volunteer to institutions like World Vision, and Gates Foundation.  Daley said they are really good at “setting the table” to help foster collaboration. They are also good at promoting and publicizing the work of the orgs as a third party, and create a collective knowledge base to raise awareness.

One of the recent initiatives they have launched is once a month Global Washington, picks an issue core to members and promotes their work through various outreach and publicity campaigns. This is a way for Global Washington to foster public awareness, to create a drumbeat on specific issues and to help others notice there is a lot going on in Washington. Global Washington also seeks to help members with skills, offering trainings and workshops. This is of particular benefit for smaller NGOs. For larger NGOs they get to share their learning and help others. There is also an annual conference.

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Sarah McGarraugh, from the Minnesota International NGO Network, is on the board, of the 100% volunteer run organization. They’ve been around for 10 years and seen significant growth in their membership (at first just focusing on individuals, but not seeking to grow institutional membership). They seek to provide a forum for international development practitioners and allies to learn and share. They started with a happy hour to look at a particular logistical challenge and then evolved to look at the issues international development practitioners and orgs face in the region. They have continued to grow, providing a newsletter with key, offering education events, and to help to foster meetings. For the past several years have held an annual summit/conference to convene Minnesotans in the field. They are a good example of an organization that is run by 50-70 volunteers which can present a range of challenges. They are seeking to expand funding an perhaps hire some staff.

 

Simone LepPray, represents the Boston Network for International Development as a board member.index She has day job but volunteers with BNID, which helps many people who move to Boston to do an international development degree and often seek to find employment in the city. Boston has a lot of universities and jobs, as well as key organizations  including Oxfam America, Partners in Health, etc. BNID brings together the students and the smaller scale organizations. They provide a job clearinghouse and info on events across the city through a calendar, website and weekly newsletter sent to their to their members featuring events, organizations and jobs. They have realized they need to host more events not just rely on others. Convening panels and bring people together not just online.

 

Nathan Darity is Executive Director of the Global Switchboard in Pittsburgh. They are a network, building and co-working space. The project began in 2014.  The initiative emerged as a local indexorganization that had been doing service learning work for over 20 years, wanted to do big picture thinking about how to advance collaboration around international issues in Pittsburgh (he also joked the organization was tired of their lease). They did extensive outreach with the city as well as  convened various nonprofit leaders and asked them if we established a space would you come? They launched a space and quickly filled. The mission is to amplify the impact of each member organization and also create a means to do collective work.

Darity discussed they have tried very categories of defining who could be part of their network but realized this was too limiting.  Now they are thinking more in directions, in getting the city to be more connected to the world. This includes both bringing the world to Pittsburgh and bringing resources of Pittsburgh to help the world. This can include organizations working on development, but another example is ones working on refugee resettlement.

Global Switchboard is working with their members to advance their capacity through training on issues such as storytelling, providing catalytic funding with an overall of advancing collective action. They want to help change the culture of Pittsburgh to be more global.

It is clear that there is tremendous promise in foster city or state wide groups to increase collaboration among actors in the development space. The institutions gathered here represent a range of the key institutions in the US that in more regional locations that have done inspiring work to convene, inspire, influence and foster collaboration. They include 100% volunteer run organizations to ones that have a core physical space, staff and budget to work from.

For me personally, I am huge advocate of building regional collaboration. First, as a member of the Alliance for Peacebuilding board, that convenes the global peacebuilding community, there is tremendous power in organizations coming together to do field building, share ideas, challenges, foster creative learning, conduct collective projects, advocacy and interventions. If conducted well, there is also the ability to pursue funding for field wide projects and expand the pie, as well as on occasion speak as a collective field which holds much greater influence.

Second, one of the main rationales for PCDN is to provide a one-stop shop to foster collaboration, learning and action.  We provide a cross-sectoral network and again the power of many is much greater than one. PCDN is also based at 1776 one of the leading incubators for businesses scaling and advancing disruption in their respective industries. There are over 200 companies working in the 1776 spaces, and although our sectoral areas vary greatly, the ability to share our learning, questions and challenges in one of the of the most amazing spaces has been an essential part of our growth.

Some key lessons from the session

1)Development actors are located in many locales – While the majority of development work takes places in the main cities of NY, Boston and DC, there are many development actors located throughout the US doing amazing work.

2)Convening Takes a Driving Force – Network and collaboration can happen for many reasons,  but it is clear it takes one or more people/organizations with energy, vision and an ability to inspire others to take action.

3) Networks can take many forms – Out of the network organizations on the panel, they range from 100% volunteer organizations that have budgets of $20,000, to ones that have their own building, staff and run co-working spaces. Some offer trainings, grants to their members, and have a full calendar of programs. Others serve more as a clearinghouse to share information about existing resources. However, most networks do aspire to eventually have some of their own events, such as roundtables, annual conferences, etc.

4) Think outside the box  – It is important to foster collaboration among a diverse set of actors that can include development NGOs, local governments, the private sector, foundations, etc.

5) Prove your value proposition – In order to grow membership, networks need to be clearly show how they are providing benefits and value for their members, that they wouldn’t be receiving working on their own.

6) Different groups have various needs – Particularly for the more professional networks with staff, there isn’t a one size fits all approach. Small NGOs might have very different needs than a large foundation or company.  Thus fostering collaboration across entities/sectors is key, but also to offer tailored programs/support to match the institution. For example smaller NGOs might need  more training about building an effective institution, while larger organizations might be more interested in influencing policymakers.

I encourage others to check out the wonderful networks, to share your questions, to explore starting your own initiatives. The panelists in this session have indicated they are exploring how to foster more creation across their respective institutions, thus please look for more exciting developments in the future.

What are you questions/thoughts on regional networks?

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