Growing the impact of the TSG network – time to get on the bus?

Let's start from the sure and certain knowledge that TechSoup Global and its 35 partners across the world have had an impact that is widely acknowledged and acclaimed. Its outputs in delivering donated and discounted technology and high quality information to nonprofits are unquestioned. However, like most people committed to social change, when it comes to nailing the outcomes, we suddenly remember another important meeting.

Recently I came across Bridgespan's model for growing networks; and to me it to holds potentially valuable signposts for the TSG network in coming to grips with the outcomes question. It is obviously difficult to do justice to the breadth of the model in a blog post and it needs to be noted much of their work is based on federated arrangements of nonprofits. However I believe the core of the model resonates for us, especially their comment that "networks, with multiple sites often operating similar programs, are increasingly expected to provide donors and supporters with a higher level of evidence that their work is effective and delivered consistently across the board". This is not only true for our major technology donors but for those from whom we seek funds for our broader capacity building agenda.

The model starts from the assumption that measuring impact is essential to your organisation and that the organisation has assigned a high level driver to make it happen. It has 5 Elements:

  • Start with Strategy (refine what we are tangibly trying to achieve – and I think we have a way to go there)
  • Define Effectiveness (find ways to measure our achievements to demonstrate impact – we're pretty good on outputs but we mumble a lot on outcomes)
  • Create Paths (work out how to do it within limited resources – easy, we're all busy people and they're the best ones to ask)
  • Diagnose Performance (analyze the data – and that includes the stories)
  • Facilitate Learning (facilitate growth within the network based on what we are learning – the sin is not in the mistake but in the repetition)

Here I want to concentrate on the elements of Creating Paths and Facilitating Learning.

Our network, broadly speaking, comprises two overlapping strands:

  1. a technology donation program agenda for nonprofits
  2. an organizational agenda, with multiple program elements, to improve capacity development for nonprofits, with a current focus on technology but with plans to expand that agenda.

Members of the TSG partner network vary widely in their level of activity in each of these elements. (There is an additional overlay in that, for many partners, TSG programs may be a small part of their broader organisational agenda, and these broader agendas remain a largely untapped network resource.)

It is in this context of disparate involvement, agendas and capacities that the Bridgsepan model of Creating Paths provides TSG with a potentially useful framework i.e. using a stages model to articulate the differences between partners programmatically and organizationally. Having plotted the members on a chart, you can then plan to have different impact expectations for each grouping of partners, with "the ultimate purpose of developing these overall groups is being to help affiliates connect with others at a similar overall developmental stage, and to help the center assess how it can meaningfully tailor supports to groups of affiliates".

Having done that, Facilitating Learning requires:

  • Being clear about the respective roles of the center and individual affiliates
  • Being clear about where the center will focus its efforts and why
  • Maintaining a developmental (not punitive) mindset

I was particularly pleased that the recommendations for action in supporting affiliates are already part of what we do or are in development:

  • Regional conferences and other meetings focused on common challenges
  • Mentoring from affiliates that are in higher-capacity groups to those in emerging group
  • Mentoring/technical support on a given dimension

Where to now? I believe we already have a diverse, enthusiastic and committed group of partners with their impact bags packed. All we need now is to agree on a route, nominate a bus driver to wear a distinctive uniform, and build a sustainable vehicle with a well-calibrated ‘impact odometer'.

Doug Jacquier is CEO of Connecting Up (CU), which became the Australian member of the TechSoup Global Partner Network in 2007, when CU began the DonorTec program providing IT donations from companies like Microsoft and Cisco, as well as locally sourced products and services. CU is also development partner for TechSoup New Zealand and TechSoup Asia (recently launched in Singapore). Leading Connecting Up for over ten years, Doug was awarded Innovator of the Year in 2008 in the Equity Trustees Australian Not-For-Profit CEO Awards, and his achievements have led to him to address conferences in the US, UK, New Zealand and South Africa.

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