I spent nearly my whole first year as Executive Director of CONNECT (Congress of Neighboring Communities) in the Greater Pittsburgh Region trying to understand it as the nonprofit organization it was portrayed as by its founders and current leadership of elected and appointed officials (who supervise, hire and pay for me and my staff), coupled with it’s seemingly lesser identity as “the flagship initiative of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs’ Center for Metropolitan Studies” (who cuts the paychecks and provides our office space). CONNECT is truly unique in the marriage of these two identities, and was formed to address our region’s also truly unique local government fragmentation-we have 130 governments in Allegheny County, 30 of which directly border the City of Pittsburgh but before CONNECT, they were not in what the folks over on the book of faces call “in a relationship.” (You won’t find my face there btw but that’s another blog post).
This major city and those municipalities which share a border (and a few of their neighbors who “wanted in” over the years) make up the urban core of not just Allegheny County but the 10-county Southwestern Pennsylvania region (SWPA). Despite CONNECT’s founding advisor Dr. David Miller’s three books emphasizing the networked approach for regions, and this clearly being the theory behind our origin, the big differences between organizations and networks are only subtly and almost unconsciously written into our bylaws, but are neon-sign apparent when members talk about what we do best and our culture. Dave knows this is the way but also knew at the time that network theory wasn’t as ubiquitous or universally practiced as organizational.
Together, in what I now emphatically call a network, we represent about 40 governments and 850,000 people living in the CONNECT region. We advocate for shared progress and jurisdictional equity on behalf of it. Three of these CONNECTed communities have applied a very similar relationship-focused, trust-based, networked approach in forming the Triboro EcoDistrict. Just as I was taking the helm at CONNECT, I had been busy volunteering as a resident and an AP pursuant to found the Etna EcoDistrict as part of a Triboro effort. The important thing I realize now is that these innovative networked approaches were trying to stuff themselves into nonprofit organization labels and formulas because that’s what all the best practices and funding requirements we had all experienced one way or another led us to do. This became especially clear when CONNECT leaders decided to amend our bylaws and taught me the value of them being much more vague, so the network may be more loosely controlled and emergent.
Though I still kept trying to apply my previous decade of experience and training in organizational development, leadership, and strategic planning, felt very “round hole, square peg.” It felt this way both in forming the Etna Community Organization (ECO) as the anchor institution for the Etna EcoDistrict and leading CONNECT but I hadn’t yet figured out why. My trainings and experiences in community engagement and organizing felt much more applicable.
So I hammered in all the above where I could and made it work: ECO was formed and pushed through an intense process to become “The World’s First Certified EcoDistict,” led by a great team of volunteering neighbors and consultants from EvolveEA, funded by the Hillman Foundation and working with the Triboro EcoDistrict to fund a staffer. And for CONNECT, the hammering was about keeping what was already a top-performing, 10-year-old initiative at cruising altitude, while securing funding to double our staff and triple our paid graduate student interns-and our impact. But I knew something was off with the approach, despite our fortune to be celebrating many small and big wins along the way both in CONNECT and in the EcoDistricts.
By my 11th month in the role, I’d been sitting and listening in almost 600 meetings with leaders around the region: all of our board of officers, most of our member representatives (elected and appointed municipal officials), partners (leaders in other government levels and departments, university centers, NGOs, private and public utilities, legal, engineering, development and planning firms..etc), and other various experts in their fields that were related to CONNECT interests. It was fascinating, stimulating, and truly a whirlwind year of information about, mixed perceptions of, and challenges for our region. This all juxtaposed with what I identified as an overwhelming amount of intersectional and collaborative opportunity in every single meeting. W And then, I was invited to an intriguing workshop, exploring exactly that kind of opportunity for water issues in our region, a legacy policy area for CONNECT.
The workshop was hosted by our colleagues on the other side of the commonwealth at The Water Center at University of Pennsylvania as part of an iterative and phased planning process funded by The Heinz Endowments, “Accelerating Transformational Change in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers.” This process is still in the beginning, but the Water Center’s innovative and stakeholder engaged approach, spelling out all things network at the forefront has already been incredibly validating and transformational for me as a leader.
Both quantity and quality of water have been extremely challenging issues for our region and there are many dozens of organizations powered by hundreds of humans working from all sides of it-including many of the communities working on or certified as EcoDistricts-and yet we haven’t quite figured out how to really rally around and invest in a big picture, to quote the Water Center’s report, “50,000ft,” regional vision for arguably our most valuable and plentiful natural resource.
Going into the workshop, I already knew a little bit about the idea, had met some of the other stakeholders through previous meetings and read a draft of the phase one report, but by the end of it, through expert facilitation by Diane Russell, President of the Institute for Conservation Leadership and Alison De Louise, Senior Advisor for The Water Center; we all better knew and appreciated other the participants’ work and role as it relates to water in our region; had begun the process of co-creating the concept of a potential new collaborative effort, and had identified who else might contribute to the collaborative work and should be at the table — and it was a lot more people and orgs.
Since then, our group of stakeholders has expanded and we have continued to be convened and facilitated by the Water Center, building the shared knowledge base, relationships, and trust over time, among other best practices identified in The Water Center’s study of successful collaborative water networks around the country. (Hint: true back and forth communication and preparedness are everything but you should read the full report on their website).
Ultimately though, what has been so mind-blowing is how many leadership training, masters level courses in organizational development and strategy I’ve personally been a part of before this distinction was so clearly spelled out and I know I saw lightbulbs popping up above other regional leaders’ heads as well. How many times had our regional coalitions evolved into another organization that needed a piece of a pie that wasn’t growing? How much baggage did we have from failed or strained collaborations set up as organizations? Sure, I’ve read about network theory, but never really thought about what networked leadership needs to look and feel like or how different the strategy for the development of a network needs to be from that for organizations. Through conversations with current and former electeds whose campaigns I had worked on, it also suddenly became clear how especially legislative branches of governments are living in the middle of the organization/network Venn diagram, and that we overemphasize organizational strategy and competition here as well.
During that first stakeholder meeting, Diane shared the following graphic with the quote, “As we move forward on development of this network, it will be important to move outside of our institutional mindsets and embrace those mindsets much more conducive to successful network building and maintenance. Key differentiators indicated below:
So different, right!? When we develop leaders and organizations, we tend to really lean into the individual and we stress clear cut, focused missions (not a bad thing). Meanwhile, there is an enormous body of evolving research on organizational and leadership development from which we can draw routinely. We need more of the same for networks and we need healthy networks, above all, to be the resilient and vibrant communities we are all striving to be.
We are in a critical, siloed, and disconnected moment in time and yet we have more technology and human capital than we’ve ever had to link together to address major issues-like a pandemic or climate change, for two really obvious examples. Yet, our human network infrastructure-much like our nation’s physical infrastructure- is either nonexistent, underinvested, and/or underprioritized-or it’s being stuffed into the wrong label and not meeting its full potential because of that (like green infrastructure but that’s also its own blog post).
While SWPA (really all of PA) gets much criticism for our local government’s fragmentation, our nonprofit sector is honestly no less siloed. For every one of our municipalities of under 5000 with a small staff of 1-3, we have its counterpart in nonprofit land and academic research centers. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a weak point, but if we are going to have so many, which does offer more opportunity for direct community engagement, then let’s radically accept the current plentiful bounty of humans who want to lead and more intentionally network ourselves. Moreover, we need to be looking and planning for the entire United States government and democracy more through the network lens, but that is also another blog post or maybe a dissertation.
I hope this post can be a bit of a conversation starter in the EcoDistricts community and beyond because it feels to me, we are too focused on setting much of our work up by creating more nonprofit organizations or departmental silos of 1-2, that will, in turn, compete for resources rather than prioritizing the leveraging together existing human and organizational capital to exponential potential investment and impact through the power of well developed and managed networks. EcoDistricts around the globe would do very well to lean into the differences and prioritize network development and maintenance. Please leave your thoughts and network strategy resources below or feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org!