What is a CSO network and how to rate performance?

By Wouter de Iongh, Partner & Hanneke de Bode, Senior Researcher, Organisational Development Support (ODS)

MAVA funds many different networks. In order to assess these and identify strengths and weaknesses so that MAVA could identify pathways of support leading up to its closure in 2022, ODS has been commissioned to do exactly that. Parts of this assessment have general relevance, which is why ODS has been asked to share their findings on those questions.

A Study of MAVA-funded Networks

Several months ago, we at ODS studied a number of networks close to the MAVA foundation. Networks are somewhat ‘strange animals’ among civil society organisations (CSOs), because of their complicated structures and different environments. From our various experiences with analysing CSO networks, including those in the project with MAVA, we have harvested some findings and lessons learned.

Our interest is not so much academic as practical. What is important to us in assessing a network is to see if it functions well, is able to deliver on its mission, if donor money is well-spent and ultimately, what its added value is. For precisely this reason, ODS produced a network study for MAVA to guide practical work in these areas. The study is based on academics’ and other practitioners’ insights as well as our own experience.

Assessment Criteria

As a rule, when assessing CSO networks we explore the following questions:

♦ does a network’s existence makes sense, i.e. if it has added value based on creating something that is not already being done out there?

♦ is this ‘something’ relevant for the problems the network is supposed to address?

♦ does it indeed deliver this ‘something’?

♦ does the network deliver this ‘something’ in a cost-effective manner?

♦ is the ‘something’ sustainable, either in terms of life span or in terms of replicability?

♦ and, finally, what kind of unintended consequences – positive, negative or neutral – might it have?

Assessing networks along these lines is not a simple endeavour. The particularities of each network’s mission, set-up and culture require different combinations of knowledge, insights and tools to ensure that any assessment is specific enough to be meaningful and useful. And its final results may not be to the liking of the networks in question.

Assessing a Network’s Added Value

To understand a network’s added value, we look first at its drivers. Their main categories are contextual (social, cultural, technological, economic, environmental, political) and situational (specific issues need addressing, there is money available, public authorities want a network to exist, members’ aspirations and their force of persuasion have played a role). We also explore who is already out there doing similar things. According to our research and experience, not all drivers are equally important for, or even conducive to, good network results. If the drivers found are a healthy mix, they may bode well for the network’s strength, health & functioning. If not, there might be good reasons for donors to be cautious. As for the landscape of fellow networks and competitors, it really depends on whether the actors in question can be seen as complementary, preventing monopolies, or showing redundancy.

Then we look at the network’s objectives to judge their relevance against the network’s reality; its actual context; and its vision, mission and theory of change. We do this to find out if the objectives are convincing: if they come across as a coherent diagnosis of, and treatment for, the issues the network’s members strive to address. This is not always the case, and if it isn’t, such a weakness could lead disappointing results for the network.

Next, we review the network’s results to assess what they are, if they are the intended ones, and have been achieved within a reasonable timeframe and against reasonable costs. This is where organisational strength, health & functioning come most clearly into play, and our experience is that they are intrinsically related to the solidity of a network’s:

♦ organisational fundamentals: people, environment, vision & mission, governance, values & character;

♦ ability for and quality of its strategising: collaboration, goals, priorities, instruments, coherence of plans;

♦ planning: objectives, focus, actions, timeline, inputs;

♦ implementation: delivery, monitoring, reporting, evaluating, learning;

♦ solidity: its operational fundamentals including its organisational structure, management, hardware, processes & procedures and culture,

Finally, we also try to judge if the results presented to us are indeed the network’s own or those of other actors, if the results are incidental or systematic, and if they have an afterlife. This is important, because one-off results are rarely what donors or networks have in mind.

Using the findings

For all the reasons above, well-funded conclusions and pertinent recommendations should be welcomed by networks, their individual members and their partners. Establishing the basic conditions for a network’s success can help them move from a gathering of organisations or people with good intentions to a network which is more than the sum of its parts, and actually able to deliver on these objectives.

Read the full report

If you want to dig deeper into the fascinating world of CSO Networks, please read ‘What is a CSO network and how to rate performance?

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