|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|
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 networks 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 networks stated goals. This situation is fine as long as the goals provide a focus for the networks 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 networks 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 doesnt 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 networks membership, whether individual or institutional, cannot depend solely on support from donors. Those attracted by a networks 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. Dont let this discourage you. Building an effective network takes time and patience by everyone.