Impact Networks: An Introduction to Purpose, Mechanics and Benefits

Learnings from a Web-Session with Author David Ehrlichman

Since our foundation in 2017, the iac Berlin has been supporting the development of Networks for Social Impact. Working shoulder to shoulder with our partners, we constantly learn together how to better harness the power, reach, and ideas of many to create impact.

A milestone in this shared endevor has been the publication of David Ehrlichman's book Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change in 2021. In a dedicated web-session, he explained the evolution, purpose, mechanics, and benefits of - in his terminology - Impact Networks.

The Emergence of Networks for Impact

The challenges we face have always been complex. Still, today’s challenges feature an additional dimension: “They are also systemic and structural and have no obvious solutions. They require diverse combinations of people, organizations, and sectors to coordinate actions and work together even when the way forward is unclear”, explains Ehrlichman. An effective framework to find answers to these systemic challenges is provided by networks and network mindsets. Networks enable us to work systemically – across organizations and across sectors.

Although working together is by no means a new phenomenon, many people struggle finding corresponding success stories. This is due to the fact that too often collaboration is structured just like most organizations we know – as a hierarchy with people in specific roles, as Ehrlichman explains. Furthermore, we tend to minutely plan out these collaborations including measurable outcomes before people even start to work together. This approach has its benefits as well - if we already know what needs to be done. But with complex and systemic challenges, this is exactly not the case.

We can’t plan it all out in advance. So we need to bring different actors together to make sense of the issue, strengthen their ability to share information and resources to coordinate their work and to collaborate together to affect the whole system in ways that no group can on their own. That’s what it means to build a network for impact.

The Network Mindset Shift

When hierarchies can be depicted with more or less accurate graphics and organigrams, networks are like living systems, made up from individuals that stay connected and constantly interact. In this constellation something that is greater than the single parts can emerge. Still, navigating these systems needs a "network mindset" that takes some time getting used to – especially when we are being trained in hierarchical systems for years.

This mindset shift in and for organizations means to change perspectives and strategies away from seeing the organization as center and connected to various stakeholders to being a contributor to a shared purpose. This shift puts the purpose and the mission centerstage – not the organization itself. When several actors gather around a shared purpose, information can flow freely between them.

Finding a shared purpose is the first step in building an impact network. (…) You start to not only scale up as in traditional organizations but scale out – increasing your impact through cooperation. (…) Purpose is what inspires people to join, to contribute their time and energy.

Principles and Core Activities of Impact Networks

Wrapping up the introduction to Impact Networks, Ehrlichman highlights 5 dynamic and interdependent core principles:

  1. Clarify Purpose and Principles
  2. Convene the People
  3. Cultivate Trust
  4. Coordinate Actions
  5. Collaborate for Systems Change

These principles are accompanied by 3 additional key ingredients:

  1. Leadership: Instead of defining rigid rules, Network Leaders nurture reciprocity. They foster self-organization.
  2. Structure: Start with people and connections and provide just enough structure to support what's emerging.
  3. Resources: Follow the network's lead, engage as peers and take the long view.

It's all about relationships. It's what makes it all work. Networks are only as strong as the connections that tie them together. (…) To be a network leader is to weave the threads that tie us together.

About David Ehrlichman:

David Ehrlichman is catalyst and coordinator of the Converge network. With his colleagues, he has supported the development of dozens of Impact Networks in a variety of fields and has worked as a network coordinator for the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, Sterling Network NYC, and the Fresno New Leadership Network.

Find more free and ready to use tools of David Ehrlichman and his colleagues at

About Wasan Community – host of the web-session

The web-session was organized by and for members of the Wasan Community and held on November 10, 2021. The Wasan Community is a group that brings together practitioners interested in how social change organizations can work with networks and communities to address the challenges we’re facing more effectively.