Networking for Impact: the role of Social Catalysts

Patrick Shine

Those familiar with Shaftesbury Partnership will know of the emphasis we place on networks and social capital – both in terms of how we deliver social impact, but also how we organise ourselves and get our ventures off the ground.

Networks are important for three main reasons:

  • they help you to get things done more quickly (because you already know someone who can help, so don’t need to start from scratch)
  • they are a great sounding board and help you add content and value to your ideas and plans
  • they can drive scale and impact because they introduce you and promote you to others that can help

In all of our ventures we’ve benefitted from such supporters, and we invest time in developing our network of future supporters for exactly those reasons.

This year we have been applying this experience more directly as partners, with UnLtd and ClearlySo, in the Big Venture Challenge  (BVC). The Big Venture Challenge supports ambitious entrepreneurs with access to business support, powerful connections and match funding to help them raise investment and deliver social impact at scale.  Our role is to support the award winners in developing their networks more strategically, by improving time management through IT, increasing consistency in the quality of relationship management, understanding how to reach people through use of super-connectors (see Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”  on what these are), and designing approaches for reaching sectors or areas that the entrepreneurs are finding hard. Most importantly we encourage them to think about reciprocity, which is the currency of all sustainable networks. A parallel notion is generosity – as a friend from the public affairs industry shared “the trick is to make the friends before you need them”.

One key insight is the most valuable contacts are not just interested in supporting single ventures. The strategic actors – those who have reach and influence – typically have multiple agendas and seek to promote system change in their sector or region. As such they are interested in how groups of organisations fare, and often think more about the functioning of intermediaries than the specific projects. These are the people that end up on the advisory board to Big Society Capital, or join boards of Community Foundations . Yes, they will engage more deeply with specific organisations or people, but they are always interested in seeing how that support fits in to the wider system.

Naming individuals as examples would be invidious but the work of MPs like Hazel Blears and Chris White is  well known and fits with my description.  

In this context, I’m very grateful to Lord Wei  for introducing the notion of Social Catalysts. These are individuals who play a crucial role in the eco-system, but they are much less visible than the entrepreneurs or intermediary organisations. It may not be clear what they do, but without them, nothing much happens.

When these social catalysts work well together, they form an Impact Network. Most are informal - a good example is the way actors in the Social investment space collaborated informally over years in order to develop the market.  But the key is their informality – once they are formalised into a funded network, the dynamics change, with creativity and opportunism sacrificed as participants start arguing about how to share the spoils. That’s when it’s time to find new catalysts, and set up new networks!

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