Networks for Social Impact About How Organizations Can Work Together to Move the Needle on Social Issues With Michelle Shumate

When governments, nonprofits, and businesses come together as a “network” to address the most pressing social issues of the day, they can more easily overcome challenges related to social issue analysis, network governance, securing and managing funding, dealing with power and conflict, managing change, and utilizing data. In Networks for Social Impact, Dr. Shumate and Dr. Cooper depict when and how to use networks for social impact to improve issues related to educational outcomes, mental health and wellness, gender-based violence, climate change, senior and veteran care, and more, by providing a new framework for organizations to more seamlessly work together.

How leaders can make social impact networks more effective
The most common management dilemmas that network leaders face
Avoiding social impact dead ends
Designing networks to address different types of social issues
How nonprofits, businesses, and governments successfully collaborate on serious social problems

Michelle Shumate is the founding director of Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact (NNSI). NNSI is a research lab dedicated to answering the question: How can nonprofit networks be rewired for maximum social impact? In addition, she is a Professor in Communication Studies and Associate Faculty at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Her research focuses on how to design inter-organizational networks to make the most social impact. The National Science Foundation recognized her research with a CAREER award. Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Army Research Office. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Networks for Social Impact (Oxford University Press). Nonprofit Quarterly, Stanford Social Innovation, and the Conference board have featured her work. She offers workshops, consulting, and coaching through the Social Impact Network Consulting.
Professor Shumate holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

More about Michelle and her work at:

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Read the Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. Welcome back to The Nonprofit Exchange. I’m Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. We have a very good topic today. it’s about how we work together with other organizations. It might be other nonprofits, but there might be some other options out there. My guest today is coming in from Northwestern, where it’s probably colder down here than in the South. Michelle Shumate, tell people a little bit about you and why you are doing this important work.

Michelle Shumate: It’s great to be here. Yes, it is colder in Chicago this morning. When I walked my kids to school, it was five degrees. I’m sure you have better weather than I do.

Just a little about me. I grew up as a pastor’s kid, so it was ingrained in me early on that a life of service is what is expected. It’s what is meaningful. Fast forward to graduate school. I thought I was going to be doing knowledge management work. Being my parents’ child, I was volunteering. I was in Hollywood, California at the time. I was volunteering with organizations who were helping people who were experiencing homelessness. I came to an aha moment. The knowledge management issues I was studying in big corporations, nonprofits, it’s not like they were losing information inside their organization. They were reinventing the wheel because other organizations down the street had solved these problems. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get organizations together to share best practices, information, to work together? Wouldn’t that be so much more powerful?

That idea launched into my graduate work and consulting work. I have been doing this ever since. That was back when I graduated in 2003. It’s been an interesting journey, but it has been very rewarding because I have gotten to meet some amazing social impact leaders.

Hugh: Social impact. People throw it around, but it’s an important topic. I am coming in from Lynchburg, Virginia, where it is 54 today and sunny. I don’t envy your cold weather.

Your book, which is on the shelf behind you. Tell us about the title.

Michelle: Networks for Social Impact. We have two loaded terms in there. One of them is “network.” What I mean by a network is a group of three or more organizations who are working together to achieve something bigger than they could alone. Any time they are talking about a coalition, collaboration, or alliance, all of that is a network for us.

Then “social impact.” Social impact means that we’re not just doing good, but we are actually producing concrete benefits for communities that extend beyond what an individual organization could do alone.

Networks for social impact ties those things together. How do we collaborate? How do we bring organizations together so that we’re seeing concrete benefits for our communities that we serve? We are seeing better educational outcomes, reductions in poverty, people being able to be served in such a way that reduces the burdens in their life. That is the topic of the book.

Hugh: I find there is very little collaboration going on in the communities I’ve lived, mostly in the South. I don’t know if it’s intentional or if people don’t understand it or they have never been given the opportunity to realize how powerful it can be. I’m thinking about the peer-to-peer nonprofit. Generic nonprofits could work with religious organizations, educational, business, government. We could work with a lot of different entities. Talk about how a network is different from a social impact organization.

Michelle: The thing that makes networks different is you have multiple groups in them who each maintain their autonomy. The fear that particularly faith-based nonprofits I have worked with over the years experience is they go in and think, “I’m going to collaborate. I have to give over everything. All of my decisions are going to be impacted. I have to share all my donors.” The truth is no, you get to maintain your autonomy, but you are in spaces where through sharing resources, knowledge, through aligning your services, you can do more than you could do alone. That is the key. Autonomy is part of it, but you’re interdependent. You’re finding those junctures where you can collaborate.

I agree with you. We did a study probably about five years ago where we looked at religious nonprofits. We did a big national survey of religious nonprofits. They do collaborate less than their secular counterparts. There isn’t any reason why that has to be. You don’t have to agree on everything with your secular counterparts in order to collaborate as long as you can find places where through working together you can do more good.

Hugh: We don’t really understand the synergy of the collaborative spirit. You’re right. People think we have to give up something when you’re not giving up anything. Maybe you can offload some things that you don’t want to be doing because somebody else is already doing it, and maybe doing it better than you. But that’s not giving up any autonomy. Last time I looked, there is plenty of work for all the nonprofits to be doing. We don’t need to be taking on more stuff. We really need to streamline our systems.

Here’s an analogy: If you ask a surgeon if you need surgery, it’s going to be a yes. I have an analogy where everything I see is an orchestra. As a lifelong conductor, you have the oboe player and the trumpet player and the French horn player and the violinist. They are all very different. They have different techniques and personalities. Some play more than others. There are different nuances. None of them give up their individual skills. We come together, and we use our unique abilities, but we use them in conjunction. We call it “ensemble.” It’s the synergy of the collaboration. People actually listening and playing off of each other. We haven’t given up anything; we have created something different, which is more profound. What analogies do you use that help people understand how powerful collaboration can be?

Michelle: I usually lean into the power of story. When you hear about the ways that some of these collaborations have come together and what they have achieved, people begin to think about that.

As you were talking about ensemble and thinking about religious-based organizations, one of the groups we talk about in the book is AgeWell Pittsburgh. It is a group of Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh all serving seniors. One of the things that they realized when they first got together was that they were duplicating some of their services. They didn’t need to, so they sorted it out. They figured out which one was the oboe player and who is going to play the violin, to use your orchestra analogy. Then they said, “Could we have our front-line staff meet and share information and resources once a month, so we’re learning from one another? We can coordinate. Ok, well, these are the groups I’m helping. They could also use your services,’” to make sure there is warm handoffs and a coordinated action. They have been doing that for several years now.

What is the result? The outcomes for their seniors in comparison to the Medicaid average are better. Fewer of them end up in the emergency room. They end up staying in their home much longer than seniors nationwide. They end up having better quality of life. They can show that against what we see as these national comparisons. Why? Because they figured out who is going to play what instrument. Then they made it an ensemble. They figured out how to bring those pieces together and coordinate those services at the front line for their seniors.

Hugh: Does your book offer some mechanisms for people to think through the system for collaborating?

Michelle: It sure does. One of the things that we talk about is there is not a one size fits all model. We talk about different choices you have to make along the way. What are the tradeoffs of those choices? The example I just gave was one where you have a group of organizations who are ready to do what we call systems alignment. They are ready to make all of their services work together. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what they’re after.

Other networks are really about advocacy. Here where I live, as part of my local community is an interfaith coalition who does advocacy at the local level for affordable housing in the community. That is a different kind of collaboration. Different setup.

We talk about each of these types of collaboration that you could be doing and when is the right decision. What do you do about decision-making? Who needs to be at the table? Do you need technologies to help you? All of those pieces. That is part of the process, figuring out what works for what kind of theory of change or mechanism for making a social impact.

Hugh: There are some people who are afraid to get into something because they feel like “I am going to do all the work, and the other people get a free ride.” How do we create expectations? How do we create some mechanisms so that we can track the expectations and then check in every now and then to see how we’re doing?

Michelle: I am a big fan of, when organizations first get together and form a collaboration, writing down expectations and rules of the road. The first thing I ask groups to do is decide how to make decisions as a group. That seems very straightforward, but it’s not. Sometimes you get groups together where you have a very small nonprofit organization and a big hospital system sitting at the same table. Do they get equal votes? Now you have to have a conversation about that. I’m a big advocate of consensus decision-making and training people in that. That’s not the only way you can do it. It’s usually one of the first conversations I have.

The second conversation I have is who is going to be responsible for this coalition, doing all of the things that make it work? Who is going to call the meetings? Who is going to be the project manager? Who is going to be in charge of communications? Begin to spread that out because one of the things we have learned about sustainable collaborations is it can’t be one person doing all the work. If it’s one person doing all the work all the time, when they go to a different organization or they decide to retire, the collaboration falls apart. We have got to think early on about how to distribute some of those different roles so it’s not just one person.

The last thing you have to be really specific upfront about is your goals. What are you trying to achieve? Be so specific about those goals that you will know if you are making progress toward them or not. I’m not a fan of those wonderful lofty statements about what we’re going to achieve that aren’t trackable. Specific, measurable, time-bound goals is a great way to help organizations stay the course together and figure out if you are actually getting somewhere.

Hugh: You’re preaching our song. We do the substantive pieces of planning and implementation. It is surprising how few organizations, I don’t care which kind, even if you ask core values, they can’t answer. If you talk about your long-term objectives and short-term goals, they are fuzzy. I want more of this. One more? So the specificity is what drives results. It also is part of the collaborative piece. How do we take our goals and your goals and see these complement each other? How do we eliminate the duplication? We could put together a coalition where it’s easier. 1+1=11 instead of 2. Your idea of 10 people know how it should go, but they will have 11 opinions on it.

Michelle: Yeah, I have been in those rooms, too.  

Hugh: Talking about the words “social impact.” That’s one of those phrases that has been politicized so much. Let’s hone in on what it is in your context.

Michelle: I think about it as concrete improvements for communities. It’s always good for organizations to figure out how to save money. Back office collaborations are great. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

For us, social impact are things like when we are talking about AgeWell Pittsburgh, do we see better outcomes for seniors when they’re served in AgeWell Pittsburgh than we do for seniors nationwide? That’s a social impact.

Or in education. Are we seeing better literacy scores and math scores and high school graduation rates and post-secondary completion rates as a result of what you’re doing in this collaboration? That’s a social impact.

I work with veteran-serving organizations around the country. One of the things that we talk about is are we improving access to services? How quickly from when a veteran makes a request do they get a call back from an agency who can help them? We have worked with them, and over time, they have gotten it down through the AmericaServes network to 24 hours. They get a response and are able to access services. It’s those concrete measurable outcomes for people. it’s not just about we did something good, but can we show that it makes a difference? Does it actually reduce the burden of the social problem that we’re seeing?

Hugh: How do you quantify those results? We have government entities, and we have community-based, cause-based charities. We use the word “nonprofit,” which is a dumb word. We’re really a tax-exempt, for-purpose business. We generate proceeds, not profits, for the good of the work we’re doing. We pay salaries and improve our systems. When we say the word “nonprofit,” we spin into this scarcity thinking and dysfunction. We’re really in a business, whether we’re a church or nonprofit. There is a business strategy and functionality to it. There are a lot more rules in a nonprofit, and it is harder work because you have volunteers to manage. What mindset shift needs to happen for nonprofit leaders to be able to think in a more assertive way about putting together these networks?

Michelle: I think that you’re onto something when talking about the scarcity mindset. When you come into a potential collaboration with a scarcity mindset, it does limit the type of collaboration that you can do. I think that’s exactly right.

The pieces that I think need to change often is thinking less about positioning my nonprofit and how we can make ourselves look good and take credit for XYZ to a mission orientation, meaning that our goal is to make sure that we are increasing wellbeing in the community. Our nonprofit is a vehicle for doing that. When we get involved in these networks, maybe we can not say, “It was my nonprofit who did that thing, so I should get all the credit.” Maybe we have to say, “We did that thing. It doesn’t really matter who gets the credit because look at what we’ve done. Look at the ways that we have reduced poverty and increased economic prosperity in this community. Look at the ways we have improved outcomes for seniors. Look at the ways we have closed the education gap.” You have to have a shift toward when we are in this network, we are about the mission. Doesn’t mean that other things don’t count.

Yes, we are a business. I agree with you. I always tell my students in classes that nonprofits, if they don’t make any money, they go bankrupt. It’s not that they don’t need profits. We are in the business of making money. We have to make money in order to make our organizations survive and do what we want. But when you step into the network space, it can’t be all about me and mine. It has to be about ours and the social impact that we can make together.

Hugh: Wise words. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit. Let’s talk about some of the missteps. Well-intended people go into a network and don’t define things like the flow of the money. How do we manage the proceeds? It would occur to me that if you’re combining several organizations in a unified mission with a greater impact, it would probably help you qualify for larger grants or donations, wouldn’t it?

Michelle: Yeah. If we are thinking about missteps, the first is probably not thinking through how you’re going to make a social impact together. That’s the most common one I see. I talk to lots of organizations who say, “We have a network. We get together once a quarter and have lunch.” I say, “Great. What do you do at lunch?” “We eat. That’s our network.” It’s great that you’re having lunch; it’s good to have companionship. But that’s not making a social impact. Your lunch does not translate into the social impact you want to see. Being really specific about what you mean around that is really important.

Second is being clear about the setup. We talked about this earlier.

The money piece is important. This throws off a lot of organizations. Most networks, in order to run, require resources for the network, not just for the organizations in the network. This means that there is some overhead that gets added. We don’t love overhead. Funders don’t love overhead either. They are sometimes a difficult thing to think through. Assuming that this network isn’t going to need any money is a misstep. It will need some money in order to function.

But you want to be careful as you think about where that money is coming from that you don’t compete with your organizational members. There are many times where the network itself gets its own legal status. The network becomes its own entity. The organizations within it become members of it. Then they can compete with one another for funds if you’re not careful. Be very clear that as the network gets more and more formalized, as it becomes its own legal entity, how are you going to enter into those fundraising circles so that you’re not cannibalizing the funds that your member organizations need?

Hugh: That’s a big deal. Money is a magnifier, good and bad. It becomes an issue if we don’t define those key things you’re talking about. The network itself becomes a legal entity. What kind of entity would it be?

Michelle: It’s usually a 501(c)3.

Hugh: That’s interesting. It’s more of a formal collaboration.

Michelle: It can be. When you’re thinking about tapping into grant dollars, there is a couple of ways that happens with networks. Sometimes all of the organizations go in together on this joint grant. That can be complicated. Sometimes what happens is instead they find that they are finding their own legal status makes the network eligible for that grant, which means they can have some overhead for the network. It can fund the activities of some of the organizations within it. It’s a strategy for being able to tap into some of those funds.

I’ll give you an example. Westside Infant-Family Network in Los Angeles, we have worked with them. They enter into families whenever kids get kicked out of preschool. That is their moment where they know there is something going on. If a kid gets kicked out of preschool, the problem is not the kid. We have to figure out what the trauma is. They have a number of agencies who serve families that are a part of their network. They became their own 501(c)3. This was one of the fears. But by becoming their own 501(c)3, they were able to fund the coordination mechanism for the network. That nonprofit provides grants to each of its member organizations to be able to do home-based visitation. That is one of the ways that that framework can operate.

Hugh: There is a lot of things to consider. You are talking about extra overhead, but you have the functionality of the network itself. It becomes really critical that each participating organization is able to take some of the things off of their plate to be able to contribute to the network. How do you work through that?

We’re talking to nonprofit leaders who are stressed and burned out. A lot of them are leaving the profession. When you say you have an extra entity, what keeps people from running the other way?

Michelle: My experience is once you get over that initial fear, people step into the room and say, “Okay, I am going to attend a couple of meetings and find out if this is going to have legs.” The first thing that happens is they realize as they look around the room that they’re not alone. For a lot of nonprofit leaders running small or strapped nonprofit organizations, just being in that room and realizing we are in this together is a lift. It helps you feel less burnt out. It helps you feel more connected. That’s one piece of it.

The other thing I would say is that yes, you might have to give up something in terms of what you’re doing to make the time for the network. But that might be okay if the network is going to make a social impact that your organization can’t by itself.

I think about organizations that have come together in terms of education. There is a lovely network called Voyage in North Carolina. They have been thinking about how to help transform this little neighborhood of color, a low-income neighborhood, about 100 square blocks in Wilmington. By getting all of these organizations to come together, yes, they have different ways of working together, but what they have found is they were able to offload some things.

The network itself decided that its strategy was to create what are called peer navigators. The network is its own entity. It hires the peer navigators. Now they have individuals who can help those who are struggling get to the right agencies and services and walk along with them in a goals-based approach. Yes, it did take more time and coordination for those agencies to get involved, but any time they need somebody to reach out and work with a family that they encounter who needs to find a whole bunch of services they don’t provide, they are not doing navigation in-house anymore. They can call the network.

It’s a different way of shifting some of what you do. You might get to do a little bit less of what you have been doing before by spending some more time coordinating. But you might get a bigger outcome because of it.

Hugh: We think about the extra work and forget about the extra impact. Maybe getting some of those things off of our plate that we’d like to, but we don’t know how. There is an upfront investment of planning and making sure that you’ve got a solid model. Everybody is in. How do you make sure that each nonprofit that is participating has buy-in and accountability amongst them all?

Michelle: That’s a great question. Some of that ends up shaking out over time. My experience with this is that you want to have organizations who sign up voluntarily for this commitment, that their funder didn’t make them. That’s #1.

Then it’s being very specific about what each organization is going to do and how we’re going to hold them accountable for that. Every organization doesn’t need to have the same commitment. A hospital system and a faith-based nonprofit in the community shouldn’t have the same kind of commitment to the network. They are going to offer different things. Being specific about what they are putting in and what they should expect out of that makes a big difference.

Once a network gets to any size, part of that is developing metrics and accountability project management structures around this at the network level.

Hugh: There is a conflict model called the role renegotiation model. Sometimes people get into situations with agreements and systems, and they force it. They say, “We said we’re going to do it this way, so we have to do it.” Wait a minute. It’s not working. How do you go back to the table and look at the issues and renegotiate how it’s supposed to happen? Do you speak about that in your book?

Michelle: We have a chapter on change. There is a couple of different places where that happens. One of them is the incremental adjustments that you make as you get better. Adaptive adjustments, where you realize, “That’s not working. Let’s try it this way.” Those kinds of changes can be expected in any network or organization really. There are some strategies that as a network leader are slightly different than the ones you would use as an organizational leader.

I think there is also a time in which many networks hit a change where they have to go back and renegotiate everything. It’s what we call a crossroads moment. They are times in which something has so fundamentally shifted in the network or the environment that you have to go back to almost the beginning and figure out why you’re here again. ost common of these is whenever you’ve had a major funder who has been funding your network for a while, and they decide they are no longer going to fund that network. All of a sudden, 70% of your funding is gone. Do you still exist? What are you going to do? Are you going to downscale or dissolve or apply for other funds? All of those questions come up whenever that happens.

There is a network that we include in the book called Summit Education Initiative in Akron, Ohio. They created their own crossroads moment. They looked at all of their programs and outcomes. This is an education network. They didn’t like what they were seeing. The board who was heading up the network of about 300 organizations shut down every single program, disbanded all of the program staff that they had, and started again. They created their own crossroads moment and renegotiated everything.

There is a lot of different ways that that happens. Some of it is not in your control. Some of it might be. I think you’re right. You have to be willing to go back and renegotiate it if it’s not working. It might be a small renegotiation, or it might be a significant one.

Hugh: We’re always updating and revising if we’re paying attention. Things change, and we learn things. Part of staying on the cutting edge is tweaking your systems and making them better. Not throwing out what works. What is your prevailing piece of advice for a network leader? What would that advice be?

Michelle: I think my best advice is to keep your theory of change front and center. What your theory of change is how is all of your network activity that you’re doing going to translate into a social impact? Are you doing it through project or advocacy or learning? Some networks figure out how to make all their members better. Are you doing it through systems alignment, where you get the whole is more than the sum of its parts moment that I talked about? Whatever that is, keep that front and center.

Overcommunicate that to your members. My experience with network leaders is if you don’t do that, you end up reinventing the whole network every three years because no one can figure out what you’re doing. Networks are new enough that you have to remind people why you’re in it and how all of this collaboration amounts to anything.

That’s my best piece of advice: Figure out your theory of change. Figure out how your network is going to make a social impact. Keep communicating that to everybody involved.

Hugh: The website where people can find out is What is NNSI?

Michelle: NNSI is the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact at Northwestern University. It’s a research lab that I founded and run. We have graduate students and research associates and undergraduate students who all help us conduct some of this research on how to make networks better.

Hugh: If you go there, there is also a link to the blog. What is in the blog?

Michelle: In the blog, we try to make all of this research that we do really accessible. The blog is written for network leaders. One of my commitments when I founded this is I didn’t want my research just to be in rarefied academic journals that only students would read whenever they were made to by their professors. I wanted this to be so accessible and helpful. I think that there are really great evidence-based insights that come out of research that can help nonprofit leaders be so much more effective. That’s what the blog is all about: How do we translate what the current research is on networks and make it accessible so you have some good evidence-based insights?

Hugh: Perfect. You also have a podcast of your own. What’s that like?

Michelle: I have a podcast miniseries. We did a miniseries with some of the education networks that I’ve talked about. I wanted to give them a chance beyond the research we reported to tell their stories. I found them to be such remarkable people that I wanted other folks to hear about them. That’s what the miniseries is all about.

Hugh: Lovely. We’re not very good at telling our stories. Having an outlet like that is helpful. Michelle Shumate, you can find her at Thank you for being our guest today.

Michelle: Thanks so much. It’s been fun.  

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