Network hosts want serendipitous relationships to form between organizations. They set up meetings, lunches, workshops, and co-working spaces to make those relationships happen. Although this role has the least amount of work (and it’s still a lot), they are the least likely to make a social impact.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Shumate.

Michelle Shumate investigates the dynamics of interorganizational networks designed to impact large social issues, developing and testing theories to visualize, understand, and enable effective interorganizational networks in a variety of contexts including nongovernmental organization (NGO)-corporate partnerships, development and disease NGOs, expert-NGO partnerships in sustainable development, and interorganizational networks for healthy communities. She has published in a range of journals including Human Communication Research, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Management Communication Quarterly, and Journal of Communication. She was awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER award and a Beckman Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois, where she was the director of the Interorganizational Networks research group.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I grew up in a small town in the panhandle of Florida. My parents were (and are) faith leaders. Our town was so small that there were hardly any human services available. My house was the domestic violence shelter, the food pantry, and where you might get help for your utility bill, if we had the money. I grew up knowing that a life of service was expected and something that I wanted to do.

Over time, that’s taken a lot of different forms in my life — including volunteer work. But I’m lucky that I’ve also been able to translate that passion into a career as a professor, researcher, and consultant. I’ve supported thousands of social impact leaders in the classroom and my consulting practice.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to focus on nonprofit and social impact networks?

Back in graduate school, I was volunteering in Hollywood while working on knowledge management research in a large Global 100 company. In balancing the two worlds, a striking thought came to me. I was helping the company create systems to share knowledge so that they didn’t duplicate their efforts on some of their most challenging problems. Nonprofits working within Hollywood faced the same problem — but on a bigger scale. Each nonprofit was solving complex problems without the benefit of a system that would allow them to share that knowledge with others. They needed networks to share information and resources across organizational boundaries as seamlessly as the Global 100 company shared information inside its organization. Within the week, I changed my research project for my dissertation, and I’ve been passionate about social impact networks ever since.

Can you share a story about how networks make a social impact?

There are so many to share — we have over 30 different stories in Networks for Social Impact. One story that I think is worth telling is of the AmericaServes networks, the first coordinated system of public, private, and nonprofit organizations working to serve veterans, transitioning service members, and their families. The 11 networks operate in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

The key idea is that when a veteran or their family’s needs help, they shouldn’t have to figure out which organization offers the right programs or services that they will qualify for. Instead, the network, which includes about 100 service providers, says, “there is no wrong door. Come to any service provider or contact the main intake center. We’ll get you the help you need.”

They offer 21 different categories of services, including financial and income support, physical and mental health care, social and spiritual enrichment, employment assistance, and transportation. The median time from a veteran or military family making a request until a service provider contacts them to arrange services is less than a day. That’s the power of a network — the ability to do more than a single organization could do alone.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I like this question because I think that the public doesn’t know a lot about how organizations make a social impact. First, I’d like them to know that it is possible to make real progress on some of the most critical social issues — whether that’s closing the education achievement gap, getting real commitments around carbon emissions from companies, or reducing poverty. Many leaders and community members think about these problems as too entrenched to address. But we have several examples of places where networks have made measurable progress. I think knowing that it can be done is essential.

Second, there is a difference between “doing good” and “social impact.” Lots of people, especially around the holidays, feel inspired to do good. But doing good is really about the intention of the giver or nonprofit rather than its impact. Many people have heard the saying, “If you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” The difference between doing good (giving a man a fish) and social impact (teaching a man to fish) is like that. Most often, doing good focuses on the short-term, feel-good actions a person or nonprofit can do. Social impact means identifying the actions that lead to longer-term, concrete benefits for communities and individuals. When you start to evaluate the outcomes in terms of whether they made a tangible difference in the problem, you approach it differently; you focus on the root cause of problems rather than the symptoms. And often, those root problems can’t be addressed by a single organization’s programs or services. They require organizations to work together — or form a network.

Concretely, knowing these two things makes a difference in how communities and politicians think about addressing some of the biggest challenges. I would like them to purposefully act when designing ways to address social problems — moving beyond the reflex to do something good to identify practices that make a social impact. And I’d like them to recognize that real social impact often takes a network — and the networks — not just the organizations that comprise them — need financial support.

How do you define NETWORK “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Network leadership describes the attitudes and behaviors of leaders who bring organizations together to make a social impact. Effective network leadership allows the network to do more than the organizations would do alone. And it’s often more challenging than leading a single organization. Network leaders must manage organizations with different ideas about the nature of the social impact they want to make and that have unique missions. They often must manage big personalities, power differences, and conflict among organizations. And that’s in addition to their jobs gathering resources for the network and managing its activities.

We talk about several network leaders in Networks of Social Impact, including Anna Henderson of the Westside Infant-Family Network and Tracy Wirtanen of the Neurofibromatosis Collective. These great network leaders are tenacious in the face of network challenges and have an unwavering commitment to making a social impact — even when they don’t get credit for the work.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit network” Please share a story or example for each.

When nonprofit leaders approach me for advice in starting a social impact network, I have a few questions that I ask them to consider before they begin.

  1. Consider the costs: Many nonprofit leaders think only about the potential impact that a network could make. They get excited about how much the community could do if nonprofits, schools, and government agencies could work together. However, they fail to consider the costs of building a network. Networks, because they lack a hierarchy, have lots of meetings to coordinate work. Often new network leaders are surprised by how many meetings it takes to get things done. And time spent in those meetings means less time is available to better individual organizations, including fundraising, program improvement, and evaluation.

In addition, networks are like a new nonprofit organization. They require money to run, and if not carefully designed, they can compete with their nonprofit members. Networks funding requires what is known as overhead costs, meaning that those funds are not used on programs directly. Overhead costs are the most challenging category of costs to raise funds to support. So, network leaders will need to make a substantial effort to garner resources to operate.

2. Determine the role you want to have in the final network. If after a network leader considers the cost, they still want to move forward. Then I encourage them to think about the role they want to play in starting it. I once worked with a local United Way that wanted to start a collective impact network focused on educational outcomes. I worked with them to convene the school districts in the area, local early childhood providers, and youth and family serving nonprofits in the area. We worked for six months to establish a common agenda. And then, the network went nowhere. Why? Because the United Way was disgruntled. They set all the meetings and would need to dedicate staff time to run the network — and they had other priorities. They thought everyone would get excited, and new leadership would emerge. In short, they didn’t consider the role that they wanted to have in the network moving forward.

In general, network instigators can have three roles in setting up a network:

3. Network hosts want serendipitous relationships to form between organizations. They set up meetings, lunches, workshops, and co-working spaces to make those relationships happen. Although this role has the least amount of work (and it’s still a lot), they are the least likely to make a social impact.

  • Opinion leaders recognize that they aren’t the right person or organization to start the network but are still well regarded by potential network members. They birth networks by getting other influential leaders to become the new networks champions and transition the leadership of the networks these leaders. Nancy Zimpher, the former chancellor of the State University of New York, was the opinion leader that helped start ROC the Future in Rochester, New York. She was not from Rochester, but her influential position encouraged Monroe Community college to step up and become the first network convener.
  • Like the United Way that I worked with, network conveners identify potential network members and bring everyone to the table. They are often, but not always, funders of the member organizations, and network conveners are almost always the eventual network leader going forward.

4. Who you recruit as members will determine your social impact. Determining who will become network members is one of the most critical choices that a network leader will make. “Missing” organizations often have unique expertise and reach that will help organizations make a social impact. For example, in my team’s research with education networks across the country, one of the key challenges was whether the local school district was an active participant in the network. Some nonprofit leaders were determined to improve educational outcomes. But, without the school district, they were missing an essential organization. Similarly, in a network we call Education for All, that my team studied for three years — the network wanted to improve educational outcomes for Black and Hispanic youth. However, they rarely had members of organizations from those communities attend meetings. Without these leaders and community members, their efforts didn’t address the community-identified concerns.

Your theory of change is one of the most important decisions you will make. Networks must make a more significant social impact than individual organizations can make by themselves to be worth all the effort. There are five ways that networks can make such a social impact:

  • Project-based theories of change focus on creating and delivering a new program or product from the networks’ joint activity. For example, Ready, Set, Parent!, a collaborative including Every Person Influences Children (EIC), Backer Victory Services, and Catholic Health, partnered to create a new program to support parents who had recently given birth to a baby. The social impact of their network depended on the quality of the program.
  • Learning-based theories of change focus on improving the quality of services that organizations already employ. Communities that Care coalitions use this approach. They train network members on evidence-based practices to reduce risky youth behavior, including substance abuse. Their social impact depends on the degree to which member organizations learn and adopt those evidence-based practices.
  • Policy-based theories of change depend on government legislative and regulatory change. Social impact only happens when the network is successful in its advocacy. For instance, the Dutch Climate Action Accord presented its recommendation to the Dutch Government. Because the Dutch Government accepted those recommendations, it made a social impact.
  • Catalyst-based theories of change operate when networks try to scale an effective practice. The Graduate! Network uses this theory of change. They encourage communities to adopt its Graduate! model to help individuals who began postsecondary education complete their degree. They call these individuals comebackers. Through their catalyst efforts, they have reached over 80,000 comebackers.
  • Systems-alignment theories of change coordinate the joint services of member organizations and explore service gaps. They make a social impact when programs work together to improve outcomes. For example, Summit Education Initiative in Akron, Ohio, uses this approach. This network of over 300 organizations works to improve educational outcomes for Akron youth. They use a robust data system and coordinate efforts. For example, their preschool program works with both early childhood providers and the public schools to ensure that kindergarteners start school ready to learn and that parents are engaged early.

One of the things that network leaders must figure out early is which of these theories of change they will use in their network. Networks that make a social impact are designed around their theory of change. An unclear theory of change may lead network members to wonder why they need to participate in the network.

5. Social impact will take time. One of the biggest surprises for network leaders is how long it takes to set up a network. In my experience facilitating networks, the process takes between six months to eighteen months. Research suggests that networks typically don’t make a social impact until at least three years after they begin. Networks move at the speed of trust. Social impact leaders who make all the right decisions and successfully garner resources for their network won’t see a social impact, on average, for four years.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? They might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Olivia Leland of the Rockefeller Foundation and Co-Impact.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room” by Anita Roddick. I like this quote when thinking about networks for social impact. I’ve seen tiny nonprofits have a massive impact by convening and managing networks.

How can our readers follow you online?

My most recent writing is highlighted on our lab website: You can learn more about my consulting practice at And I’m active on Twitter (@ProfShumate) and LinkedIn:

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.