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close this bookHIV/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.)
close this folderChapter 6 - Lessons Learned About Networking
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentFactors and Conditions Influencing Networking Dynamics
View the documentWhy Networks Fail
View the documentNetworking Issues and Challenges


Networking in the area of AIDS is increasingly recognized as an essential component of a more effective response to the challenges of HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, however, little has been written about the lessons learned in building and sustaining a successful network. This is regrettable as networking in the area of AIDS could only be strengthened if networks reflected more on their successes, failures, capacities and weaknesses and shared this information with others.

This chapter presents three articles which examine lessons learned about networking. The first article looks at factors and conditions which influence networking dynamics. The second piece is a summary of an evaluation of an unsuccessful network of indigenous people in Asia. It is included here as the lessons learned from this experience are also applicable to AIDS networks. The final article, written specifically for the Guide, is a reflection on the major challenges that must be addressed in the development of a network.

The articles in this chapter look at:

Factors and Conditions Influencing Networking Dynamics;
Why Networks Fail; and

Networking Issues and Challenges.

Factors and Conditions Influencing Networking Dynamics

There are countless factors and conditions which influence the dynamics of networking. In preparation for this Guide, we collected a few examples of networking experiences and conditions which reflect various stages of a networks growth. This list of obstacles and challenges illustrate key points and reminders of what makes networks work well, and what puts them at risk

The process of networking is important, including the development of a network culture in which members come to realize an awareness of themselves as part of a group, sharing a common purpose and mutual rights and responsibilities. That culture needs to be acknowledged, supported and nurtured as much as the reasons and content of the network itself because it is about people trying to find a way to work together against a common threat.

Having clear goals is an important condition for a network’s success. It should be noted, however, that few networks, if any, begin life with clearly defined goals. It takes time to build consensus among members on what the goals should be. Accordingly, during the start-up period of a network it is only reasonable to expect some ambiguity in the network’s stated goals. This situation is fine as long as the goals provide a focus for the network’s activities and serve as a reasonable basis for others to join the network. Moreover, during the start-up phase of a network it is important to acknowledge that at this point in the network’s development the goals need to be refined and to encourage the membership to be active in this process.

No network can be all things to all people and all organizations. Be realistic and begin with those who want to participate in a process. Although it is important to be inclusive, it is equally important to remain pragmatic. It can be strategic to begin with a core group of organizations who feel comfortable with the goals and process at the beginning by concentrating your energies and resources on those who do want to work together. Otherwise there is the danger of trying to satisfy everyone, and in the end, the network pleases no one. However, this should not be viewed as a way to exclude organizations that may be more difficult to integrate. Sometimes some organizations just need more time to see the benefits of the network before they commit to it themselves.

Networks may go through phases that reflect a change in members’ interests, changing priorities, or quality of leadership. Differences and disagreements among organizations may become stronger than the common goals that originally brought them together. Networks may weaken or dissolve as a result of these differences. However, this does not always have to be seen as negative: sometimes networks do form and fade away, membership does rise and fall, and goals and objectives do evolve.

Networks need to be flexible. Members will put more effort into a network when it has potential for meeting their needs. It is important to allow for change in network priorities as members’ own priorities change. It is also important to plan for these changes with regular reviews of the mission statement and goals.

It is vital that the network is not in competition with its members. For example, some members may have specific skills and specialties, and their involvement in the network can benefit all members. However, if a network tries to carry out activities, which a member could equally well carry out, it may be in competition with its own members for funds, people, resources and influence. Competition between the network and its members can readily lead to the demise of the network.

Network members need to have a clear understanding of where ownership of the network lies. For instance, members must feel that they are contributing to the ongoing development of the network. If members do not feel that they “own” the network, their commitment to the networking process will be weak.

An egalitarian relationship between members of a network must be maintained. It can be damaging if any one member or group of members dominates to the exclusion of others. Some networks experience problems when the larger members are favoured over the smaller members. Every member needs to feel that their voice is as important as the other members.

Many networks do not have sufficient funds to support an effective administration. In lieu of “hired help”, the expectation is that the networks administrative functions will be undertaken by a volunteer work force. While this idea may be practical in a context where funds are scarce and spare time is a luxury, it doesn’t always work. Volunteers are often busy with their paid jobs and generating incomes, and only get to the voluntary activities when they have time.

A network’s membership, whether individual or institutional, cannot depend solely on support from donors. Those attracted by a network’s potential to assist them with their aims must be prepared to contribute, financially or otherwise, to help it function efficiently and effectively. This is a real test of the networks viability: can it exist, even informally, during the periods when donors or funders are difficult to attract.

Communication is a common problem. Disseminating critical information, answering queries, soliciting input to decision-making and developing collective strategies all take an enormous amount of time. There needs to be a commitment of staff time and funds to cover these communication costs. In addition there is the problem of unreliable communication infrastructures, e.g. poor telephone connections, equipment breakdown, and lack of technical support. It may take days to get a message through to an organization, while those on the receiving end may feel they are being left out. Both sides can feel frustrated. Don’t let this discourage you. Building an effective network takes time and patience by everyone.

Why Networks Fail

The following article looks at the reasons why a network failed. The article, titled “The Impact of Regional Development Programs on Indigenous Minorities”, by Jean Michaud, originally appeared in IDRC Networks: An Ethnographic Perspective, by Anne K. Bernard, International Development Research Centre, 1996

This review of the Regional Development and Indigenous Minorities Network in Southeast Asia (RDIMSEA) studies the impact of regional development programs on indigenous minorities in Thailand, Continental and Insular Malaysia, and the Philippines. RDIMSEA was an externally conceived network that grouped NGOs, academics, and a coordinating office.

The RDIMSEA network had a difficult and troubled existence from the start. A major source of confusion was an early change in key personnel. The main initiators of the network quit and were hastily replaced by individuals with no previous working relationship. This was likely the most important factor in the subsequent problems that were experienced. The project was concerned with the participation of representatives of indigenous minorities and attempted to involve researchers who were themselves members of the minority groups. Efforts to recruit membership from minority groups met with limitations of language, insufficient levels of education, absence of administrative and political structures with which to work, and, generally low interest in the venture. It is likely that the initial motivation for many participants was primarily their own interests. When questioned about taking part in this network, none expressed any excitement about actively cooperating with other components of the network. Because this network was not internally grown, it did not receive the necessary push from enthusiastic recipients to become an operational and durable network.

The regional nature of the project also presented some problems. Linguistic, cultural, religious, political, and economic differences existed between the researchers and the minority groups and an important cultural gap existed between the members themselves. The network wrongly assumed that organizations studying similar people were similar. Networks imply that groups must work with each other. The wider the gap between participants, the more difficult the building of cohesiveness, and the more likely the development of opposition.

Major conclusions and recommendations of the study include:

1. The project failed to define a specific role for the coordinator of the network.

2. There was a lack of common understanding, about how the network should operate, a lack of transparency, and there was competition with the donor.

3. A focus on a single ecoregion, or on groups with closer cultural identity, would have been helpful.

4. Active participation of indigenous minorities in the research process and in decision-making could have been more clearly addressed in the project.

5. A mix of institutions in the same project requires a genuine mutual understanding of basic similarities and differences between components and requires discussion between participants.

6. If networks are to reduce workload among participants, instead of increasing it, this may only occur after a certain amount of time is invested by the participants. Fragile organizations may not have the necessary “energy capital” to be able to wait for the intended results. The network mechanism therefore must be developed in close conjunction with the realities of its prospective members.

7. Coordination is always a key issue in a network. A lack of coordination was singled out as the main reason for the collapse of the project.

8. At the earliest stages of discussion, all potential participants should have an opportunity to meet and express their motivations and expectations. Donor representatives should take the initiative to discuss with all participants.

9. Two key questions were not addressed when the network was conceived: What is the utility of networking as a specific form of action in this context? What is the operational value of a concept such as “indigenous minorities” in Southeast Asia?

Source: IDRC Networks: An Ethnographic Perspective, by Anne K. Bernard, International Development Research Centre, 1996.

Networking Issues and Challenges

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?

Differing Visions

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.