In my continuing quest to understand what makes our special breed of nonprofit tick, I read a new book, Connect>Innovate>Scale Up: How Networks Create Systems Change, over the holidays. In it, Peter Plastrik and colleagues share key insights gleaned from studying the work of dozens of impact networks, including at least one that we all know: the U.S. Water Alliance. Here, I want to share some of those insights and what I think they mean for our work going forward.

1. The Insights

A. Networks are the Way That Social Innovation Happens

Plastrik states boldly at the outset that “[n]etworks are the way that social innovation happens” and, further, that “[t]his is not widely recognized.” (Plastrik, 14). By “network,” Plastrik means “groups of individuals  … seeking to solve a difficult problem in society by working together, adapting over time, and generating a sustained flow of activities and impacts. (Ibid., 12). Here, I think about our members participating in our Peer Learning Circles and our Collaborative Grant Program, finding innovative ways to utilize green stormwater infrastructure to manage stormwater and realize other co-benefits for disadvantaged communities. This is the unique work of the Exchange and the path forward to advancing the GSI field, according to Plastrik.

 B. Systems are Complex and Systems Change is a Long Game

Social systems define the ways that society has arranged how people live and work together, e.g., the policies and practices that determine how stormwater is managed in urban environments. Because they are complex, they can be difficult to understand through reductionist thinking alone. Rather, what is needed is “systems thinking,” understanding and improving dynamic interconnections between the parts of a system and looking for ways to catalyze or leverage them to create change. (Ibid., 56).

Effecting change in this way requires “observation, careful probing, and reflection,” something our Peer Learning Circle members know only too well.  (Ibid., 70). Plastrik notes, “[t]here are no cheap tickets to mastery …. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing.” (Ibid., 79).

And system change is a long game. “Patience is a necessity …. You may have noticed that most of the networks we’ve described so far have been at it for one or two decades, and even more.” (Ibid., 80).

   C. There are Three Types of Social Innovations, Each with a Unique Pathway to Scale

Plastrik defines three distinct types of social innovations:

  1. Practices: Knowledge about promising or proven new practices and tools and how to apply them;
  2. Policies: New or revised public policies (laws, regulations, investments, programs, services, administrative rules) and government power relationships; and
  3. Products: New goods or services or business models.

“Migration into other scales is not unusual for social innovations, because many of the systems targeted for change are formed from a combination of markets, fields, and governments.” (Ibid., 125)

The takeaway for me, here, is that, right now the Exchange is, and, arguably, should be, focused on using peer learning and the collaborative grant program to develop innovative practices for the GSI field. Migration into policy and product development will likely be necessary and important for the future of our work.

 D. Getting to Scale Requires Understanding a Field and Developing a Roadmap for Influencing the Field Over the Long Term

Plastrik notes that “[i]nnovators should precisely define the field they have targeted for change or emergence, starting with its basic conceptual frameworks and existing practices.” (Ibid., 139). This includes:

  • Defining the boundaries of the field and where it intersects with other fields;
  • Identifying the field’s main players and the ideas they champion;
  • Understanding the extent of diversity and inclusion within the field; and
  • Gaining awareness of innovations that are under development in the field. (Ibid., 140).

With such a framework in place, innovators are then able to develop roadmaps for how they will influence the field over the long term.

Here, I think about the work of the Exchange to define equity and the state of equity practice in GSI. I also think about development of our Playbook and its potential to help guide the work of the Peer Learning Circles and the Collaborative Grant Program going forward. As Plastrik notes:

[i]nnovations tend to spread through a field through frameworks, and learning communities. The frameworks establish new concepts and make visible the examples of new practices. They provide ideas and language that practitioners can use and share. This enables learning communities of practitioners to develop or apply innovations for their various contexts. (Ibid.).

E. Effective Scaling Requires a Diversity of Resources and Relationships

While philanthropy can play a role in helping networks bring innovations to scale, it should not be the sole supporter. Rather it is important to diversify the resource base to include earned income and support from government. (Ibid., 153).

In a similar vein, one sector cannot bring an innovation to scale by itself. Rather cross-sector engagement is required. Plastrik notes that “[s]ocial innovators … should build relationships in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors and support leaders and staff in developing ‘cross-sector fluency’ so they can serve as ‘bridgers’ who knit together systems and collaborations.” (Ibid.).

 F. Networks May Perform Eight Other Functions to Support Their Primary Work of Innovation Development

Plastrik outlines eight functions beyond innovation that networks undertake to support their growth and development, including (1) capital investment; (2) celebrations (think the “One Water Prize”); (3) consulting / technical assistance; (4) leadership development; (5) measurement development; (6) movement building; (7) narrative shifting; (8) research. (Ibid., 160-164).  In its theory of change (shown below), the Exchange has focused on two of these: leadership development (e.g., the ongoing Adaptive Leadership Program) and research, aka “evidence building” (e.g., the ongoing “State of Public Sector GSI Report”).

G. The Mix of Functions is Driven by a Governance Structure That is Reflective of the Cross-Sector Relationships Necessary for Scaling

Plastrik notes:

An innovation network’s leaders establish its mix of functions. This leadership is usually comprised of a blend of some staff and members, advisors, outside experts, investors, and partner organizations. The leaders serve as a strategic hub for the system-changing effort. They consult with network members and resonate to their views, interests, and feedback. (Ibid., 167).

  1. What This Means for the Work of the Exchange

My thoughts about what Plastrik’s insights mean for the work of the Exchange going forward are summarized in the diagram below and the bullets that follow. In short, we must double-down on Peer Learning, the Collaborative Grant Program, and the Playbook:

  • Supporting and Connecting Peer Learning and the Collaborative Grant Program: While the Leadership and Research pillars of our Theory of Change, shown above, are important to our work, they are secondary to the implementation pillar, wherein the work of innovation resides in our Peer Learning and Collaborative Grant Programs. We must ensure that those programs are well-supported and -connected. Another important activity is ensuring that learning from the Peer Learning Circles is shared more systematically and with a wider audience.
  • Developing the Playbook: Because of its importance in providing better understanding of a complex system that will ultimately lead to an approach-informing framework for both Peer Learning and the Grant Program, development of the Playbook is one of the most important things the Exchange can do to advance its work right now. Members may recall that Greenprint Partners has been hired to develop a scope of work for this project, which will involve interviews with members this spring and a session at the Annual Meeting.
  • Diversifying the Resource Base: The Exchange must diversify its resource base so that we are less reliant on philanthropy for financial support of our work. Members may recall that this is a priority in our current strategic plan and a primary reason for developing a new sponsorship program for which solicitation of member-nominated prospects is currently underway. A new source of earned revenue may come from repurposing content in publications like the Equity Guide for use in online training modules that can be offered to nonmembers for a fee.
  • Engaging Cross-Sector Partners: The Exchange must also broaden the circle when it comes to cross-sector partners who are actively involved in our work. Developing the Playbook and implementing a Sponsorship Program will help to identify these partners.

I welcome your thoughts about these ideas, so please leave a comment or reach out to me at or at 410-657-2657 (voice and text).


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Towson, MD 21285