|HIV/AIDS Networking Guide - A comprehensive resource for individuals and organisations who wish to build, strengthen or sustain a network (International Council of AIDS Service Organisations, 1997, 48 p.)|
|Chapter 6 - Lessons Learned About Networking|
Roger Drew, Projects Director, Family AIDS Caring Trust, Zimbabwe, has been involved in several AIDS networks in the Southern African region. This article presents the authors assessment of key factors which influence network development and the dynamics between network members.
How can we define a successful network? Perhaps as one that it is seen to be of benefit to its major stakeholders. These would include members, funders and regulatory bodies such as government. What challenges might a network face in trying to achieve this?
A network will face problems if the stakeholders have differing visions for it. For example, the funders might see the network as an advocate with government whereas the members want it to raise funds for their individual organisations. Often the vision is not clearly articulated. Each stakeholder simply assumes that the other shares their vision!
Networks should identify their key stakeholders and what their vision for the network is. A network will only succeed if it has a well-focused vision to which all the stakeholders agree. Networks should restrict their stakeholders to people who share their agreed vision. This may involve refusing some resources and/or limiting membership. Having a clear vision will avoid stakeholders having unrealistic expectations of the network.
Dealing with Conflict
Conflicts may occur within a network for a number of reasons. Competitive relationships between members and inter-organisational politics may affect the network adversely. Decisions may be made for politically expedient reasons rather than with a view to making the network more effective.
Examples of decisions which may be influenced in this way include location of secretariat offices, choice of sites for workshops/conferences, representation on the decision-making body, etc.
There needs to be a way of dealing with conflicts within the network. However, at times, the problem may be something that is larger than the network itself.
Communication is a major challenge to all networks, particularly when distances between stakeholders are very great and communicational infrastructure is very poor. As one of the major goals of many networks is to improve information exchange, there is a need to give this issue special attention. Particular issues to be considered are:
frequency, content and quality of newsletters
frequency and purpose of meetings
sub-divisions of the network into geographical localities
programmes to improve communication infrastructure
Problems will arise if key stakeholders feel that they are excluded from the decision-making process. Different processes may work for different networks and for the same network at different times. It is important that the process be clearly defined and reviewed periodically.
Finances affect networks in a number of important ways. First, networks need financial resources to function. These may be sourced from members themselves or from an external body. It needs to be recognised that the organization providing funds will have a powerful voice in the dealings of the network. As a result networks should choose their funders carefully.
Secondly, in resource poor settings, organisations and individuals may be attracted to networks in order to benefit financially. Failure to recognize this may result in frustration and unmet expectations.
Finally, networks need to establish systems for handling finances. This may be difficult as the network has other priorities and people involved in networks may lack management skills. Failure to do so may result in financial mismanagement or fraud. Networks using donated funds may face very high expectations from donors in this area.
Management of Change
Networks do not remain static. They change as do the situations in which they operate. A successful network will be able to adapt to changing internal and external environments.
One of the major changes experienced by a network is when it employs its first member of staff. This is usually motivated by a recognition that volunteers are unable to cope with the increasing workload. However, in most cases the workload on volunteers actually increases when staff are first employed and the nature of the work changes. If volunteers are unprepared for this the result can be disastrous. Inadequate thought is often given to conditions of service and related issues. The respective roles of volunteer committee and staff members need to be defined.