Generating ideas, connections, and action

Connecting with People, Connected for Impact By Clare Nolan

By Clare Nolan, Engage R+D

My name is Matt Bond and I am Director of Network Strategy for the DentaQuest Foundation. About five years ago, in a crowded room at the National Oral Health Conference, I met a guy named Gary Harbison. As a foundation employee, I’m accustomed to having lots of funding conversations. As a network strategist, I’m interested in connecting with and bringing in like-minded people to the network. Back then, we were in the early stages of network development, so my work had a  heavy focus on a small core group of members. Gary was not among them. Nevertheless, we got to talking. I learned that Gary is a photographer(although his wife is the real artist behind the shots), he loves Glen Miller (who I now have on my iPod and am listening to as I type),
and he still has one of those wooden record player sets that is more of a piece of furniture than a sound system. We exchanged contact information, and I promised to stay in touch.

Three years later, the oral health network was burgeoning and it was time to expand. We designed a series of meetings to bring together people from across the country to develop a set of  comprehensive, national goals to improve oral health. Gary represented his state of Missouri at the first Midwest regional meeting. A year later, he began partnering with other network members to tackle major state and national policy issues. In 2016, he participated in a national  convening on Medicaid where he gained knowledge and skills pertinent to advancing this goal in his home state. This year, Missouri included extensive dental coverage as a standing part of its Medicaid benefit, ensuring that thousands of citizens have access to oral health services.
A big part of the credit for this success went to the Missouri Coalition for Oral Health for its advocacy efforts and influence. And the Executive Director of the coalition is none other than Gary.

As co-author of a recent article about the role of foundations in catalyzing networks for social change, I love Matt’s story because it provides a compelling example of the power of networks. It shows how important connecting with individual people is and getting to know something about them beyond their professional role or title. It also shows how the personal relationships people develop with one another lead to opportunities to further connect and collaborate. What started out as a relatively modest role for Gary at a regional level turned into a larger role within the network and at national policy convenings.


It also shows how these individual chains of relationships and connections can lead to real results for communities on the ground. In this case, Gary’s participation in the Foundation’s oral health improvement network armed him with the knowledge, skills, and relationships he needed to work collaboratively with others to expand oral health benefits for low-income citizens of his state. Thanks to Gary and his colleagues, more people in the state of Missouri have access to critical oral health prevention and treatment services.


But what’s even better about this story is that Gary is not alone. He is one of more than 1,000 leaders across the country who participate in the Oral Health 2020 Network. And his successes are emblematic of the kinds of advancements that other network members have been able to make in states across the country. As the full article and a forthcoming executive summary detail, the Oral Health 2020 Network has achieved notable successes that go well beyond the state of Missouri. These successes include:

·      development of dozens of health leaders across the country,

·      creation of new state partnerships connected to a national health improvement network, and

·      cultivation of relationships with more than 300 state policymakers.


These successes have resulted in tangible policy and systems changes such as the expansion of public benefits in more than 15 states, improvements in state oral health infrastructure in 11 states, and inclusion of oral health benefits in health reform implementation. The article also highlights lessons from this work relevant to others pursuing network and systems approaches:


1.     Value of evaluation. For people that are new to network approaches, it can be hard to see how building relationships leads to tangible impacts for real people. It takes time for work that is truly transformational to develop and unfold. As a result, people often rely on stories or social network mapping as a means of highlighting potential for impact. But too often, it’s easy to dismiss these stories by casting them as anecdotal or too process-oriented. And while social network mapping is a powerful tool for understanding how people are connected and the ways those connections change over time, it doesn’t always draw a clear through-line to results. Partnering with evaluators who understand network and systems change approaches is critical. You can’t always predict or forecast which emergent strategies are the ones that will translate into results; therefore, it is important to work with evaluators who can be nimble and flexible in terms of methodological approach.


2.     Supporting network development. Network-building is both an art and a science. While there are best practices and guidelines one can follow, the process of supporting and weaving a strong network also requires intuition, creativity, and an open mind. The Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) was an incredible partner to the Foundation and its network on this journey. As the article highlights, the Foundation did not intentionally set out on a network-building journey. It sought first to build state leaders and coalitions, and it was those leaders who wanted to come together as part of a community of practice to share strategies and lessons learned from their work. As that community of practice evolved, these leaders became interested in expanding in-person and virtual participation through a national network with open membership. IISC supported this process at every step along the way—responding to the identified needs of network members and bringing to bear its expertise in developing customized supports and solutions. This often required a great degree of innovation on their part given that this work was national rather than regional in nature. The article offers several insights regarding what it took to build connections, capacity, and alignment across such a diverse and large membership.


3.     Role of philanthropy. Finally, the article also discusses the unique role of foundations in supporting network approaches. This certainly required new ways of working, some of which run counter to typical operating practices for foundations. For one thing, the Foundation needed to be much more transparent, open, and participatory in its strategy development process. It also needed to develop new roles, both for staff and grantees, to effectively support the connection, engagement, and impact strategies of such a large network. Given the power imbalances inherent to philanthropy, this work required both imagination and purposeful intent. Attending to equity concerns was also an important aspect of the Foundation’s work and something that was new for many stakeholders. Operating in new ways required building board support for this work and maintaining that commitment over time. Being attentive to the board’s perspective on this type of work and finding ways to deepen knowledge and cultivate support is critical to effectively carrying out both network and systems change approaches.


Our goal in developing the article and executive summary was to showcase a successful network strategy by highlighting both tangible results and what it took to get there. Our hope is that the insights gained from this journey have relevance and value beyond this single network and can inform the field of practice more broadly. We look forward to further dialogue and exchange about the implications of the DentaQuest Foundation’s journey, and where this experience either aligns or departs from that of others. With that in mind, we offer the following questions for your consideration.


·      How might philanthropic practice evolve to effectively support network approaches?

·      How can evaluation tell the story of this work and best support the field of network practice?

·      How can network practitioners work together to share best practices and lessons learned?