Multi-site Nonprofits

November 7, 2011       Atul Tandon      

“Herding cats” is defined by Wikipedia as “… an attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic.” Welcome to the challenge — and opportunity — of maximizing the strength and impact of networks for multi-site nonprofits.

In America today, such networks are engaged in: responding to disasters; running food banks; providing housing for the poor; creating education, health and income opportunities; battling cancer; and, running houses of worship. The list goes on. Millions of Americans donate to them and, probably an equal number are beneficiaries of the services. The design, development and effectiveness of these nonprofit networks are critical tasks for nonprofit executives. If you are not a participant, you are a partner in one or more of these networks. It takes diligence and determination to create and cultivate successful and effective networks. That diligence and determination consume considerable time, energy and attention.

With that understanding and appreciation, you can take networks you partner with or participate in to achieve new heights of effectiveness and impact. Without that understanding and appreciation, you are risking your own professional failure and, potentially, diminishing those crucial networks and placing your organization in jeopardy.

Like people, human networks are driven by DNA. Everything from decision making to outcomes to partner satisfaction seem to be determined by the network’s DNA. Is this a “declarative” network where strategies are determined at a central location and disseminated out to offices or branches for implementation? Is it a “discerning” network, whereby disparate partners seek to understand a common calling and locally devise programs to meet that calling? Is it a “deliberative” environment, with network partners coming together to reason and dialog about the network’s priorities and practices?

Let’s dive into each of the three DNA environments:

Declarative DNA: This represents a “top-down” network in which headquarters lays out the vision and mission, as well as the strategy to accomplish goals. Imagine a Starbucks, a Shell, or a Ford, and each office or branch, whether in Detroit or Delhi, is dependent on headquarters for direction. Each has some, though limited, flexibility to determine how best to implement that strategy.

If you are at headquarters, you are developing strategies, making investment decisions, and choosing branch or field leaders. Monitoring their performances is key. Leaders at headquarters decide whether to invest in an office’s performance or cut losses. The operating models are standard across the network, reins on field staff are held tightly; outliers are not tolerated, but innovation is encouraged, so long as it leads to improved results.

If you are in the branch/subsidiary, execution is the key. You are accountable for quarterly and annual results. You are the first line of offense and the last line of defense, and each day you manage, hire, fire, and innovate — inside the box. You can smile at the customer, but cannot change the recipe for the decaf mocha frappuccino.

Discerning DNA: The hallmark of this network is inter-dependence and a commitment toward a shared calling. Equally vital is an agreed upon understanding of that calling. Without such an understanding, there can be significantly different interpretations of the calling, as well as the vision and mission of the organization. There is no central headquarters from which decisions are made, let alone power flows.

To be successful, participants learn to yield to each other. Value is placed on the ability to create compelling visions and ideas, and get participants to buy into those visions and the strategies to realize them — not on short-term progress. Collaboration and cooperation are keys to success.

Major decisions are made only after extensive discussion, deliberation and debate. Only then is trust is established, a clarity of vision achieved, and the network of offices, people and services collectively can flourish. As a participant, you speak up during decision-making processes. Your voice counts, as does the power of your ideas. The more persuasive you are, the more successful you become. Have you sat in a meeting of the Board of Elders at a local church? Look no further than that gathering.

It takes a long time to go from independence to interdependence but once a shared consensus emerges implementation faces few hurdles. However, innovation in a discerning environment often becomes a casualty. Participant satisfaction tends to be high and is directly related to everybody having a seat at the table.

Deliberative DNA: The key element of this network’s DNA is a federation of autonomous entities, each with its own leader and the power to both identify its clients and choose how best to meet their needs. They come together to promote a shared visions and outcomes, but pursue independent means to achieve those ends. Network-wide decisions are driven by deliberation and debate, not necessarily discernment.

The dynamics of large over small, fast over slow, special interests over shared interests all are in play. Majority agreements carry the day and the leaders with the largest bloc of votes win. Democracy rules and you win when you have the votes.

Identifying pockets of innovation and enabling rapid adoption are hallmarks of success, as is the ability to build trust and garner a strong group of advocates of the leader’s vision. As a leader, your success is dependent upon establishing trust with each separate entity, either through your own personal intervention, or through others on your behalf.

The independent entities interpret and implement strategies uniquely to meet their individual needs. Ineffectiveness by any partner is not tolerated because it would damage the shared brand.

Innovation flourishes across the network, and the best practices get adopted quickly. Accountability in these locally owned and operated nonprofits is high. The board member who voted to approve the annual budget works in the building next door.

Think of the local Boy Scouts troops. One has eight of 10 graduating scouts get wings of Eagles and the other struggles to get even one. It’s the same operating manual. The difference is local leadership. You must recognize your network’s DNA, develop trust, and foster collaboration between and among the other offices. Networks are composed of people. The more you listen, observe, discern and appreciate people’s styles of conducting business, the more effective you will be in harnessing the power of those people in accomplishing your organization’s objectives.

As a result, you will build increasingly higher levels of confidence with people throughout the organization. And, of course, experience in herding cats is essential. NPT

Atul Tandon is the founder and CEO of Tandon Institute, a Seattle-based social sector accelerator. He previously served in global executive leadership at Citibank, World Vision and United Way Worldwide. His email is