The Foundation’s Network Effectiveness Framework: what’s it all about?

Posted on 27/01/2017
By Gillian Cooper
Network Motif

Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of the Foundation’s civil society partners across the globe.

Many of our partners have initiated exciting projects to address some of the most pressing issues of our time: youth unemployment, sustainable energy, climate justice. For civil society, one of the ways to increase its power and recognition is by connecting and collaborating with other organisations, individuals, and experts to build a stronger voice and network for change.

Networks have always been important mechanisms through which civil society can increase its power and voice. However, they have gained increasing relevance in the last few years. For one, the power of technology has made the ability to connect people, attract support and to get the message out that much easier. Some well-known networks and social movements such as Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), Living Wage Campaign, Black Lives Matter have demonstrated that a strong message, effective use of online media and in many cases a distributed and devolved network leadership, can challenge and create powerful change.

Over the last little while, the civil society sector has faced more than its usual share of disruption. Shifts in funding and aid arrangements and shrinking of the operating space for civil society have meant that the sector is considering new ways of connecting and collaborating. Networks and movements that use more agile, fluid structures for organising and connecting actors can provide a way in which to advocate for some of the urgent issues we face.

But, if you’ve ever worked as part of a network, you’ll know that working collaboratively is never straightforward. Because networks are made up of independent organisations and actors, each with their own purpose and way of working – managing their different interests and finding a common vision or voice can be like ‘herding cats’!

So what is the Foundation’s Network Effectiveness Framework (NEF) all about? Recognising the challenge of maintaining the momentum of collaborative working and sharing a vision across different interest groups, we hoped that by developing a tool, our partners could analyse and assess their progress as a network as well as identify areas and needs of capacity to improve the effectiveness of their change agenda. At the same time it needed to provide the Foundation with monitoring benchmarks to show progress to its own funders. I began to research networks and evaluations on what makes them effective. What key elements determine their success? What is and isn’t a change network? How can you keep network members keen and motivated? Is it possible for all participants to have a stake?

Drawing on the research as well as the work of our partners, we see that most networks that work towards a social change, policy reform purpose are facilitated by an identifiable supporting entity – the network leaders – a steering group, organiser or secretariat that provides strategic leadership and administration. From a central ‘core’, membership is often diffused. In well-developed social and policy change networks, membership can be multi-layered with sub-structures, such as a technical advice committee or geographical hubs, allowing for decentralised forms of decision-making.

The Foundation’s NEF aims to look holistically at all aspects of network effectiveness – leadership, structure, impact. The framework breaks down network effectiveness into four main areas or ‘elements’. Ideally, all four elements should be analysed to provide a holistic view of where you are as a network and where you’d like to get to, to effect change. The four elements and their ideal ‘state’ are as follows:

1. Vibrancy: A vibrant network has clarity on the change it wants to see, devolved leadership, actively addresses gender and power imbalances in its structures and learns from its experiences.

2. Connectivity: A connective network has structures that allow for a diversity of connections required to make decisions and achieve its outcomes.

3. Resources: A well-resourced network values, utilises and cultivates funding from members as well as external funders and is transparent in its management of funds.

4. Policy advocacy strategy and impact: An effective strategy has a clear problem identification, is backed up by research evidence and is targeted where power lies. A network has made an impact when the media adopts its messages, decision-makers engage the network in determining the policy agenda and its recommendations has led to changes in policy.

Each of the four NEF elements is broken down into key characteristics:



  • Shared vision
  • Recognition of gender and societal power imbalances
  • Distributed leadership
  • Learning and development


  • Structure
  • Connections between core members
  • Linkages with wider constituents


  • Financial resources
  • Skills capacity
Policy advocacy Strategy and impact


  • Strategy
  • Influence of the policy debate
  • Engagement with decision-makers

We developed a number of questions to probe and help network leaders and members reflect on the main attributes and capacities of each of the above characteristics. These are presented in the The NEF matrix. The framework is designed for network leaders and members to undergo a self- assessment process, ideally working in groups, using the questions in the matrix in a facilitated workshop setting. The workshop should also outline targets and agree on actions and responsibilities to improve. These can be recorded on the NEF Record Sheet, developed on Excel. Ideally, the targets should form part of the network’s workplan.

In the end, each of the characteristics is rated using a red-amber-green status and scored to provide an overall tally. Both the rating and scoring should be helpful to quickly demonstrate progress and change to network members. Although the ranking is helpful, it is the discussion, reflection and consensus between core members on each of the characteristics and on the strengthening needed that is the most important result of the framework analysis.

It is important to say that a key aspect of this framework is the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all with regard to network structure and operation. Different structures will be appropriate for different purposes and contexts. Network leaders are encouraged to assess and experiment with the structural needs that best serve the change they want to see. The NEF questions have been designed to help networks reflect on this.

So far we have found NEF’s application insightful in probing and pinpointing capacity support needs in the developmental stages of the Southern African Alliance for Youth Employment (SAAYE). We hope to apply NEF with other Foundation partners in 2017.

I hope that organisations and network leaders will find this framework useful. I really believe that making connections, finding common ground and making linkages through networks and collaboration with tried and tested partners as well as forging new and different relationships will become more and more important in this new political and development era. As Naomi Klein put it in her acceptance lecture for the Sydney Peace Prize in November last year, ‘Intersectionality … is the only path forward.’ The enormous problems of inequality, human rights abuses and climate change are all linked; so we need to do better at linking up and working with others to find solutions.

I would be very grateful to have any feedback on any use of the NEF, which can be left in the comments section below. We would be keen to know how you’ve used it but also:

  • Are you or your organisation currently part of a network and what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of this alliance?
  • Do you feel that the NEF can help your network build on its strengths and address the weaknesses? If not – why not?
  • What’s missing from it?

The Network Effectiveness Framework is available for download here.

Photo: Flickr CC: Rosmarie Voegtli