Managing the impact of our peer networks

Amira Tharani, a Consultant at programme partner NCVO CES, shares lessons about peer networks from a recent learning event.

Impact management is about using what we know to improve what we do. A year into the Impact Management Programme’s peer networks, it’s time to practice what we preach and take stock.

Our recent learning event brought together 18 participants, partners and other stakeholders to share their experience and insight. We reviewed what has worked – and what hasn’t – and learned from more established networks. Speakers included:

We asked three questions about developing peer networks: what makes them effective, what are the pitfalls and how can those pitfalls be avoided or mitigated?

What makes peer networks effective?

Networks need clear goals, purpose and values. In an environment of competing priorities, members need to see both the practical and social benefits of networks. Impact management can be lonely if you’re the only person in your organisation with the interest or responsibility, so finding like-minded people sharing similar struggles can help.

We talked about balancing structure and freedom for participants to set the agenda based on the issues that are important to them. Similarly, it’s important to balance guest ‘expert’ speakers with members sharing and learning from each other’s day-to-day experience.

Building and maintaining trust came up frequently. Participants should be able to ask questions and share new ideas without fear of judgment. A clear code of conduct and skilled facilitation can help to build psychological safety.

What are the potential pitfalls?

Members who are ‘know-it-alls’ rather than ‘learn-it-alls’ can reduce trust. Admitting mistakes or failures isn’t easy. And when things do go well we might not share the reasons behind our success because we don’t understand why something worked or because we think sharing could hurt us in a competitive funding environment.

Having members with varying levels of experience can provide inspiration and learning, or boredom or confusion depending on how a network is facilitated. Inconsistent participation can be tricky too, and we debated having a fixed membership vs introducing new members on a rolling basis.

And as with any professional development activity, insights from a network do not automatically translate to changes within the organisations. We’d like to better understand how to embed lessons from networks in our day-to-day work. And yes, we all acknowledged our universal sector challenge of not enough hours in the day!

How can these pitfalls be avoided/mitigated?

Setting the tone for open discussion of mistakes and learning in a safe and non-hierarchical space is essential. This is especially important if the network is convened by a funder – it needs to be clear that discussions will not impact negatively on future funding.

Skilled facilitation can make the most of different levels of experience and newer members. A dedicated facilitator/leader maintains continuity especially when membership fluctuates. Facilitating frequent but low-effort communication between sessions builds relationships and incentivises continued participation.

We agreed that individuals and networks could benefit from tangible outputs, for example creating a template one-pager about impact management to get buy in from trustees. This may help to embed network learning in organisations, particularly if senior leadership recognise network participation in appraisals or development plans.

Clear objectives and a range of participation options can make networks easier to prioritise. And there’s no denying that a financial contribution to people’s time and travel, if possible, makes a difference.

What next?

These insights will shape the next phase of the networks. We’re excited about participants setting the agenda based on their own experiences and challenges. We’ll also try to facilitate more communication between sessions using online tools if members find it helpful.