Serving as the facilitator or backbone of the network, VPP has learned that it needs to be like a symphony conductor in providing consistent communications across a variety of actors, especially leadership. The executive directors of the six organizations have agreed to participate in youthCONNECT, but their competing priorities as leaders of mature nonprofit organizations with significant budgets and a range of employees can make it difficult for them to remain fully apprised of the latest network activities. Although each organization has program managers and evaluation directors who attend monthly network meetings, the executive directors still run the risk of missing key developments. As a result, VPP realizes that it needs to communicate regularly with the executive directors to allow for a collective check in and sign off on what people in the network are doing. VPP also works to keep the other working groups informed as leadership defines strategies.
VPP is also a facilitator in the communities of practice that meet monthly. In this role, VPP guides and coordinates the strategic focus of the network, identifies patterns and trends across the network, and identifies and drives appropriate follow-up actions.
When the youthCONNECT network was in a formative stage, the executive directors were responsible for most of the work, which included vision-setting, strategic planning, and governance. As the network matured, other staff members from across the organizations (e.g., program managers) were brought in to operationalize and implement the broader reform initiatives that were decided and agreed upon at the executive level. VPP realized that a one-way flow from executive decision-making to implementation is not sufficient and recognized the need for a reverse feedback loop from the implementers to the executive directors. Now as program managers and evaluators work together to implement network activities, updates are taken back to the executive directors for their consensus, investment, and support so that the key initiatives of the network can move toward sustainability.
When youthCONNECT was formally initiated, about half of the executive directors already knew each other socially and had participated in some previous work together. For the other executive directors, trusting relationships had to be built (among each other, and with the group of executive directors who already knew each other). VPP spent about three months explicitly working to get these relationships in place. Although VPP regards this early relationship-building component as essential, it also looks back and acknowledges that it could have been beneficial to simultaneously build relationships across the other communities of practice simultaneously.
A challenge for VPP is that members of the network wear both an “organizational hat” and a “network hat,” and that these roles have the potential to compete with and even conflict with each other. With time, VPP has learned the importance of being strategic with partners’ multiple roles, as well as the possibility of role conflict and how to set up win-win situations to benefit the organizations and the broader network. For example, the SIF grant requires match funding. Despite some interest in joint fundraising, the partners expressed an understandable concern that joint efforts might put some of their individual grant funding at risk. VPP’s strategy consultant, Monitor Deloitte, facilitated a series of conversations with the partners to establish ground rules for the joint fundraising effort. Using this framework, VPP was able to help the network develop a list of potential donors that was vetted and approved by the executive directors.