One of the best parts of working at NationBuilder is supporting our Network customers—the associations, non-profits, and political parties with big, scary, audacious goals that know they need a movement of people to help them get there. Organizing humans is not easy, but with a bold vision, help from technology, and a little patience, it’s not only possible; it’s incredibly rewarding.

Lately, I’ve been feeling inspired by some of our customers that are moving towards the network model and it makes me want to see more movement-building. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—growing your network is about being stronger together, increasing visibility with brand continuity, and empowering better decision-making by sharing data in real time.  So, without further ado, here are my top 9 tips to help you build and support your network.

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  1. It’s the culture. Your organizational culture must be oriented around distributed leadership in order to see success as a network. Cultural readiness is a huge indicator in how successful your network will be. It’s not easy to shift away from an entrenched, top-down culture, but it can be done by simplifying processes and re-orienting around the people. Shifting entrenched mindsets is hard work, so try to be patient and empathetic to the experiences of others.

  2. Think of your network like an octopus. An octopus uses its tentacles to understand it’s surroundings. Your local branches are hearing and absorbing what’s happening on the ground and they can relay that information back to HQ. Like octopi tentacles, you want that on-the-ground source of truth to be able to easily pick up information and relay it back to HQ. That means lowering the barriers to supporter participation—a  3-page paper volunteer application should really be a quick online form—and ensuring that data is rolled up to HQ in real time so better decisions can be made faster.

  3. Set the boundaries, but follow the lead. There is an analogy that compares people to sheep (sorry, I wish it were better). It says that in the absence of fences, sheep will cluster together rather than explore. When you build a fence around the sheep, they will spread out and explore their surroundings within the safety of the fence. Humans operate with a similar mindset. They don’t know what’s possible and so they play it safe. Your job at the network HQ is to create the framework and boundaries for your chapters to explore and push. This can be as simple as defining the goals: fundraise, recruit volunteers, grow email list. Once they know what’s possible and where you’re trying to go, they’ll take the lead.

  4. Don’t write off the smaller chapters. In fact, these chapters can often benefit the most from digital tools. A chapter that is actually run by a single volunteer can punch above its weight with the help of a couple of strategic pages. Create a couple of pages that allow supporters to engage with your site, just as they would with the human behind it. Petitions, surveys, suggestion pages, and prompts to share are all great ways to provide opportunities for supporters to engage without the need to constantly update content. All of these interactions can be automatically tagged and addressed with auto-responses, allowing one person to do the work of 5.

  5. Meet your chapters where they’re at. Different chapters are going to need and do different things to be successful. Just like you would provide multiple ways for your supporters to engage, you need to provide multiple ways for your chapters to engage and be successful. Some will embrace mobile tools and want to charge out of the gates. Others might be at a different stage of readiness. Have a plan for the different ways your chapters might need to be supported. And then...

  6. Support your network! Yes, a successful network can lead from the ground up, but they must be set up for success. They need resources, human attention, and answers. Set your network up for success by creating a role at HQ dedicated to Network success or get that extra help with Network Care. Networks are by nature autonomous, but someone in your network needs to be responsible for the success of the chapters or they’ll wither on the vines.

  7. Give before you take. Your network is about more than getting data, volunteers, and donations from the chapters. It’s about your movement and you must invest first to get a return. Show your local chapters what they will get by participating—like templates, new and relevant data, action-oriented websites, and resources—before asking them to send the results of their hard work (enriched data) back to HQ.

  8. Grow your network by example. One of the biggest mistakes networks make is rolling out a new plan from the top down, forcing the chapters to adopt it. A) that doesn’t provide for the difference in how chapters can be successful from tip #5; and B) like I mentioned in tip # 6, Networks are autonomous, so pushing chapters into something they don’t want is a recipe for failure. Instead, prioritize the chapters that are keen and energized to get going and then have resources on hand and ready when other chapters are ready to mobilize. Once they see the success of the other chapters, they’ll be quick to get on board.

  9. Branding is big. Consistent messaging and branding is as much for the supporters and prospects as it is for the chapters. Consistent messaging helps the chapters to feel like they’re a part of something and gives them confidence in talking about your organization. Beautiful, consistent messaging helps the chapters to feel proud of what they’re a part of and motivates them to spread the word!

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