As early as 1831, the French political commentator Alexis de Tocqueville noted the habit of people in the United States to form private associations in order to pursue common interests.
The United States has a long-standing history of voluntary, or civic, action that has built our government and many public or public-serving institutions we rely on still today. When people in the United States see a problem, they volunteer and take responsibility to fix it. Often this voluntary spirit results in the creation of a nonprofit organization and the development of relationships between individuals from many institutions and associations. Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s views on philanthropy.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the power of networking.
Networks of Separate Nonprofits with the Same Mission
A natural step is for local organizations with identical missions – for example, “to enhance the lives of children before starting school (Pre-K)” – from across a state or region to get together to share ideas, implement efficiency strategies, and increase their public policy influence. Local charitable organizations may then create a state association composed of members of similar organizations or local chapters of national organizations. National associations grow from state and local members of like-minded groups. These multiple affiliations build networks of relationships. Associations of local hospice, nonprofit nursing homes, childcare, arts, or recreation organizations might be examples. Each is independent in its own community. Each have similar missions and can benefit from working together on some issues.
Networks of Nonprofits - Focused on a Common Complex Problem
For any complex problem, there may be many nonprofit organizations working on individual facets of the issue. In the case of long-term poverty, there might be a group working on children’s nutrition; another group might focus on employment training, while yet another provides low-cost health services. Sometimes these groups collaborate in order to provide more cost effective, complete, and efficient service.
There may be more than one local government, religious, and nonprofit organization working in each of the specific areas related to solving the problem of long-term poverty, and there are often overlapping roles. The CEO of the nonprofit focused on entry-level job creation might be a board member of the nonprofit working in the area of K-12 vocational education. A staff member of an organization working on pre-K education may attend a church with a mission to provide food in a low-income neighborhood. While each organization has a specific role to play, there is often significant interaction and personal relationships among the organizations that are trying to solve the same big and complicated problem.
An individual might belong to several groups that are working in the same general field. For example, a person concerned about the environment could also be a member of a group advocating for the care and management of wild birds, and another planting trees, or protecting endangered species, or working to reduce carbon emissions to combat global climate change. These individual organizations may then join a similar regional, statewide, national, or international cluster of groups in an association working to solve a complex problem. In Michigan, collaboration has occurred at a high level and has aided in the development of the state’s current philanthropic infrastructure. Read more about this work in Chapter 1: Play Well with Others.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the collaborative nature of the nonprofit sector.
Networks of Nonprofits - Focused on Being a Nonprofit
Another set of networks are associations of organizations focused on their own legal status and similar operating concerns such as private foundations, community foundations, corporate giving programs, nonprofit independent charities, religious charities, or quasi-governmental agencies. Nonprofits with a wide variety of missions (responding to a multitude of disparate complex problems from different geographic service areas) have a common interest in building better organizations and influencing common public policy issues – such as how charitable gifts are handled by the tax code.
What has resulted over the past two centuries is a multi-layered and intertwined ecology of local, state, national, and international voluntary charitable organizations and associations. Any single nonprofit organization or individual related to a nonprofit probably belongs to multiple networks at the local, regional, state, national, and sometimes international levels. In addition, the various associations often have relationships with one another, such as interlocking memberships: board or staff members serving on the boards or committees of one of the other types of associations.
Throughout these networked relationships, there is individual private communication. There is also formal communication through newsletters, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, public policy initiatives, public relations campaigns, support for research, and similar joint ventures supporting the local efforts over a larger geographic area. Many associations span across the nation and/or the world.
The nonprofit networks become vehicles for ideas in good currency or to reach “tipping points”. They may, for example, advocate for a public policy change for long enough, or with arguments good enough, that a majority of the population begins to agree with their position. When there is social agreement, the public policy changes.
Video: Watch Craig Ruff discuss all the small steps needed to make big change.
Michigan's Four Infrastructure Networks
The four Michigan philanthropic infrastructure organizations – Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA), Michigan Community Service Commission (MCSC), and Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (Johnson Center) – are focused on the state of Michigan; yet, these organizations have had national and international effect as a result of their work.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the philanthropic network created by the four partner organizations.
CMF and Grantmaking Foundation Networks
In the case of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), this Michigan-based organization is composed of nonprofit charitable organizations (private foundations and public charities), the primary characteristics of which are: they make grants to other organizations; are not primarily fundraising institutions; and serve the people of Michigan. The focus of the membership is around the grantmaking process and the myriad of both organizational and larger social issues that concern grantmakers.
Many members of CMF are also members of smaller groups of grantmakers in a city or region of Michigan that meet to discuss local issues. CMF is a member of the national Council on Foundations composed of individual grantmaking foundation members and regional associations of grantmakers similar to CMF. There are, literally, hundreds of associations of grantmakers focused on specific areas of funding interest – Grantmakers in Health or Grantmakers for Education, for example. In addition, there are national organizations of grantmakers of similar types of foundations – foundations with a small number of staff or family foundations. A single grantmaking foundation in Michigan is likely to be a member of a significant number of local, state, national, and – perhaps – international organizations related to their organizational interests as grantmakers. Explore an extensive philanthropic ecosystem at the Learn Philanthropy - Philanthropy Ecosystem.
Video: Watch leaders discuss collaboration in the Council of Michigan Foundations.
MNA and Nonprofit Charitable Organization Networks
For the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA), the membership is composed of nonprofit charitable organizations serving Michigan. The legal status of a member as a charitable nonprofit institution and their delivering of services in Michigan defines the focus of the membership. MNA has on its board committed “seats” for other statewide nonprofit associations, such as the Michigan Association of State Universities and the Michigan Association of United Ways.
MNA’s national counterpart organization is the National Council of Nonprofits (NCN). NCN is an association comprised of state associations. There is also a national organization called Independent Sector (IS) that has members of all forms of nonprofit charitable institutions – corporate grantmakers, private foundations, and other associations, for example. Members of MNA might also be members of IS, and state associations such as MNA most likely to belong to IS and NCN as members and/or leaders.
A nonprofit organization in Michigan will probably be a part of local/state/national, and perhaps international, associations related to their area of focus (poverty, education, women, children, environment, the arts, etc.). They are also likely networked with associations interested in helping them to do the nonprofit work more effectively, such as MNA or IS, that focuses on being a “nonprofit” organization rather than the nonprofit’s area of service.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Michigan Nonprofit Association.
Michigan Community Service Commission Networks
MCSC is a governmental entity whose legal authority comes from the state, with a governing board appointed by the governor of the state of Michigan. MCSC primarily funds programs related to philanthropy and volunteerism using state and federal monies provided for that purpose.
MCSC connects to the national level as a grantee of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an entity of the federal government. There are state service commissions focused on funding service and volunteerism in all of the 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the development of the Michigan Community Service Commission.
Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy Networks
The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy resides within a public university as a “center of excellence,” serving the nonprofit and foundation community with research and professional education. The Johnson Center belongs to a national organization of academic centers focused on philanthropy, Nonprofit Academic Centers Council (NACC). In addition, the Johnson Center is part of a network of organizations interested in research about the charitable sector called the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA). There is an international counterpart to the Johnson Center, as well – the International Society for Third-Sector Research (ISTR).
Video: Watch leaders discuss the Johnson Center.
Individuals Working Through Networks
These philanthropic and nonprofit organizations depend on talented and committed individuals that serve as staff members, program volunteers, and board members. Like all endeavors, skill and knowledge in a specific task or interest area takes time to develop. Most of the issues addressed by nonprofits, and funded by foundations, are complicated. Many of the governance and operating systems of various nonprofits are somewhat different from one another, yet there are also similarities. The talent and experience of the human resources within the sector are critical to its success. Find out more about the people leading in Michigan in Chapter 2: Philanthropy Requires Human Talent.
Within the networks of organizations, the relationships are personal as well as organizational. Executive directors get to know one another. When an opening appears on another board, often board members are recruited to serve on a second or third board. When a board member is serving on a search committee, they frequently put forward the names of individuals who they know are excellent candidates based on their experience with the person through another nonprofit.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the value of relationships and trust.
Staff members of one nonprofit might also be board members of another nonprofit. It is not unusual, for example, that a staff member of a nonprofit – for example, an environmental organization – would serve on their local church board, as a scouting or school volunteer, or serve on the board of another nonprofit working on a similar issue. A Sierra Club staff member might serve on the local Nature Conservancy board. Similarly, a board member from one nonprofit might be a volunteer at another nonprofit – the chair of the League of Women Voters might serve as the volunteer chair of the local hospital guild, for instance.
Individuals who are charitably inclined often support more than one nonprofit organization. They may even support multiple organizations working in the same general area of concern – children’s issues or poverty, for example. This informal interaction of individuals across organizations is another dimension of the interwoven formal relationships among organizations. These individuals bring their skill, knowledge, and networks to each organization they support.
In Michigan, a successful strategy for building a strong, collaborative set of infrastructure organizations in support of philanthropy has been the conscious selection of board and staff members from one organization to sit on the board of the other. The board member has legal and fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest of the organization for which they are serving as a trustee – and by participating in the inner workings of one of the other partner organizations, there becomes a shared and broader perspective on the field as a whole.
Video: Watch leaders discuss the value of overlapping boards.
To understand the process of how ideas generated in Michigan have grown to scale, have been replicated, and/or how ideas from other parts of the world have come to Michigan to be implemented, it is critical to understand that each organizational entity – and, in fact, many of the people involved – operate within a complex and intertwined set of personal and organizational relationships.
In observing this array of geographically layered, interconnected, and large-scale networks of relationships, the analogy of a neural network seems apt. While there is specialization in form and function of each nonprofit or foundation, there are also multiple “synapse” connections through many associations, which can appear to be like a living, organic, and vibrant entity. A new idea in one small part of the network can travel at lightning speed to others connected across geography and interests.
Nurturing and supporting positive relationships is a key to the success of program development in Michigan. It is through such networks of common interest – more so than by any traditional marketing or design – that many social innovations in Michigan have been replicated nationally and internationally.