Bridging Networks, Learning Together
"We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Surprisingly, this notion even holds true for highly collaborative networks, which often end up working in their own silos. The Bridge Builder initiative set out to challenge the status quo and build bridges between like-minded networks in philanthropy.
The scale and complexity of networks in philanthropy are increasing. Still, most organizations tend to focus solely on their “own” members, thereby making exclusivity a key part of the network’s identity. But even closed networks have a porous membrane – individual members often belong to different communities and therefore identify with multiple networks (multi-network members). However, organizations often ignore the value of these members’ diverse perspectives and their potential to act as bridges between autonomous networks.
The alumni network of the German Federal Foreign Office’s Training for International Diplomats, the Responsible Leaders Network of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, the Fulbright Alumni Network and the Bosch Alumni Network, coordinated by the iac Berlin, joined forces to explore the concept of members as potential bridge builders within and between networks with an international reach. An initial group of multi-network members came together in two workshops to discuss such questions as:
- How can we increase the impact of our networks?
- How can our networks become more resilient, more inclusive and more participatory?
- What can we learn about our networks by looking at them from a member’s perspective?
- How can we strengthen the role of bridge builders?
Starting at the beginning
To kick off the Bridge Builder initiative, we organized two co-creative, online events that brought together around 50 participants from the four networks. The first meeting turned out to be not only a meeting of many old and new friends, but a validation of our central assumption as well:
To establish a sound basis for potential future developments, we discussed the importance of multi-network members for closed networks and how these networks could benefit from an overarching meta-network. From there, we discussed approaches for building more inclusive, institutional networks in order to create greater impact.
Guided by the logic of circular impact models, we assumed that empowered bridge builders could help answer key questions based on their experience with and insights from their respective networks. Re-incorporating this knowledge into the institution’s own networks could then create additional benefits, bring in more diverse perspectives, and inspire innovation.
The way forward
At the end of the two initial events, participants and organizers were inspired and motivated to continue with this initiative. They agreed that the Bridge Builder could:
- Improve the cooperation of purpose-driven-networks;
- Strengthen members on a personal level;
- Benefit the institutional networks and their respective missions.
Shifting from planning to doing, participants unanimously agreed that strong personal relationships is the glue that holds together initiatives like the Bridge Builder – essentially a meta-network in itself. Therefore, the focus should be on exchange, building a sense of belonging and ownership, and creating opportunities for serendipity. There was no need for yet another online exchange platform, but rather a place for ideas, inspiration and trust. That’s where people can make real change.
The Bridge Builder initiative is not designed to be exclusive, but rather a way to test collaboration between closed networks. Building on these initial steps, we are planning additional iterations in 2021, and if successful, we aim to expand the circle of participating organizations in the future.