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June 15th, 2007

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01:33 pm - Social Network Analysis and Non-Profit Organizations
Non-profits each exist in a social network. While many other sectors have at least the possibility of performing their services in a vacuum, non-profit organizations very rarely operate without a large constituency of donors, volunteers, community partners, and also exists with an unusual scentral ense of being 'in the public eye', operating as they do as guardians of a public trust. With in mind, let us examine some of the major concepts of Social Network Analysis as it relates to non-profits.

Board Interlocks
Structural Holes
Weak Ties

Board Interlocks
One of the most easily measured forms of Social Network Analysis involves looking at the overlap of groups who share the same members. A number of scientists have begun examining network data from the boards of non-profits and corporations and looking for connections or underlying patterns there. Recently Prof. Charles Morgan presented his network data from the board members of all corporations in Atlanta over three different eras - pre-Depression, 1955, and 1985. Out of all of his conclusions, one of the most fascinating comes from deleting NPOs from the network - major components of the network are suddenly disconnected. The implication is that these corporate entities would not otherwise be interacting, or connected, if not for the shared non-profit boards that some of their members were on. This trend was especially present in the pre-Depression era, perhaps because of the social capital of sitting on a non-profit board during that era. I know that in my own community (Jews), being able to make it on the boards of non-profits was seen as 'making it' in the never-ending quest for assimilation and acceptance - the feeling was that while WASP America was willing to do business with us, the social networks were still out of reach.

During the middle era, personal liability for the actions of the non-profit began to be a detractor for many people's willingness to sit on a non-profit board. With the insertion of greater protections for board members, participation increase, though the assumption that a well-heeled socialite would sit on a non-profit board was shattered. Participation on non-profit boards began to swing back towards grass-roots operations, and so it no longer was the interface for corporate entities.

As the non-profit network itself increases, it would be interesting instead to look at non-profit board interlocks. It may be illuminative to see whether or not the same board members were beginning to form an interlocked network of agencies. It would be important to do more than mere 'board membership' - I can think of Timo of SCRAP and SHIFT, who is also involved in other agencies. One might want 'all staff and board' to look at interlock.

Every node has an ego-network, the set of other nodes it is connected to. In a huge social network, a critical question is whether or not the ego-network of the non-profit is highly connected to the other nodes in the network. Are there other nodes who are equally central? Are these other nodes drawing from the same funding, the same energy...

Looking out at the network itself, irrespective of the non-profit's ego-network in relation to that net, the non-profit might try to identify key players, and secondary players, who might be tappable for funds. A truly subversive non-profit would attempt to do favors for those key players, and try to get the blowback through the network, in terms of increased visibility, validation by a respected player, etc. Vodka companies who try to get famous people to drink their wares, for free, are attempting this kind of strategy.

Centrality for a given network may be a two-edged sword. The Portland Women's Crisis Line has been central (highly coupled) with much of the region's domestic violence and social services networks. This also translates into a certain inability to change. The expectation of those who are connected to us comes back to us in the form of surprise when we do change, and lack of surprise when we do not. One might think of valley walls around us as an organization, a channel cut for us by our previous history that engenders extra energy when doing something different than before. Being especially central to an entire network of people is going to hold the individual or organization in stasis relative to previous behavior.

A case study presents a case in which board members, seeking to optimize their next configuration, attempt to use Social Network Analysis to find candidates that are very 'central' to the larger social network they are in. In System's Science, we emphasize that relation = constraint. So if a person is very 'related' to many of the other players, they are also likely to be very constrained. Their time is constrained, for beginners - they are also constrained in terms of how much funding they are likely to be able to divert to a new project, no matter how positive.

Another kind of centrality measure is 'betweenness', in which we might instead look for agents (board members) who are key access points to new pools of people. The white, media-played, 'well-known' arts funding field is by no means the only network in town. In a neural net of all society, very few players are dead-ends - they are probably bridges to entire components of the graph that have not yet been included.

This points to a greater need for recruiting minorities and other less-focused upon groups - while at the same time moving away from the same minority leaders who have already stepped up to serve on other boards. The key is to find that key player who is right at the threshold of becoming a leader in his or her community, and tapping that ambition. Once they have already begun to be a recognized leader of any subset community, they are no longer as available for time, money or emotional investment.

Examine the following network graph - in it, the nodes with the greatest ties to other nodes are colored from white to orange, and I colored the highest centralities in red.

In the second drawing, nodes are colored according to their betweenness, their access to other nodes. In this, a number of new board possibilities emerge for the non-profit. Especially given the idea that the most constrained are the most central. It does not always occur that the centrality measures coincide on the same people. Obviously, a board member who is one's only access to a new group AND is very central to the existing network is desired.

Structural Holes
Of great use to non-profits might be an examination of the structural holes in the network of their community. In a given network of agents, a structural hole is a lack of connection, where there could be some. If there are a set of nodes who could be connected, and yet who aren't, as a matter of coincidence, environment or access, the non-profit may be able to identify key areas in which to operate their services. The traditional SWOT analysis looks for an anecdotal kind of structural hole when it looks at weaknesses (internal structural holes) and opportunities (external structural holes).

Let's suppose a non-profit could do an effective network analysis as part of their SWOT analysis. Examining the internal network might show how particular departments weren't talking to each other, or might illuminate how a new employee position should be advertised to find a person who can bind together several different operations.

Examining the external network with an eye towards choosing board members, one could look at the board members of other communities, and look at a comparison to one's own. What skills do they have that we don't? What social connections do they have that we don't? Structural holes may also illuminate key gaps between the administrative and oversight of the non-profit with their moral authority.

Weak Ties
In Granovetter's seminal work on the strenght of weak ties, he points out that every individual is at the center of a fairly densely knit ego network. Since one's loose associates are themselves at the center of a dense ego network, the value of the tenuous connection between the two is because of the connection or possible connection between two pods of people.

I'd like to take this one further. A key component to any interaction, I propose, is the frame, or context, for that interaction. Are we oppositional? Are we together opposing someone else? Framing all interaction as 'conflict', for a moment, I propose that the most lasting weak ties are ones in which we share in a 'man vs nature' or 'man versus circumstance' opposition. This means that interactions that have no obvious enemy are the ones in which we absorb the most information about our weak-tie compatriots. Our focus is on overcoming the tribulation at hand, whether that be a funding crisis for an agency itself, fighting poverty, serving the moral ownership, or otherwise engaged in a community struggle that has no human opposition.

Leaving such experiences, we are vulnerable to recognition of anyone in our largest, loosest connection circle who invokes, refers or is connected to that pool of people. Non-profits, struggling against poverty, for the arts, against racism, for the public good, become reference points for validating people within our weak-ties sphere. I propose that this is because the fundamental 'opposition' to the work of the non-profit has no face - and so much more focus can be on the communal nature of the work.

This implies that non-profits who begin to view themselves as 'in competition' with other non-profits sell themselves short on the possible community building - as soon as people in the non-profit begin to give focal status to the other non-profits, or enemies in general, the people within the organization begin orienting outwards, rather than inwards or across to their compatriots.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:June 15th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)

More non-profit networks

Here is an article about a non-profit (ACEnet) working in economic devlopment and creating local economic networks.


And a blog about many non-profit networks

Date:June 16th, 2007 08:34 am (UTC)

Re: More non-profit networks

This page is very interesting to me, and to others, I suspect.

For more on NGO (non-profits) network analysis go to the "Networks and Evaluation" and "Network Models" sections of the MandE NEWS website, at

As editor of those pages, I have now included a link to your posting above, on the Evaluation of Networks page.

regards, rick davies
[User Picture]
Date:June 16th, 2007 12:08 am (UTC)
I'm way over my head here, but theoretically money = information. These are the blue prints to escape the interest-driven, exponential-growth-dependent economic juggernaut of today?

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