Five tips for building sustainable global networks
Active and supportive networks lead to more resilient leaders who can sustain impact over the long run. International networks help people gain new perspectives and create multidimensional solutions to complex challenges. We’d like to share five tips for building and maintaining strong global networks.
The Community Solutions program recently surveyed its alumni and conducted a social network analysis. The results indicated that the program doubled the connections in its alumni network over the course of three years.
The results showed that 89% of the 554 alumni from 2011 to 2018 were connected with a 36% density, meaning that 36% of all possible connections in the network exist. This is more than twice the 15% density of the smaller alumni network that the program analyzed in 2016.
Here are five tips that exchange programs can consider for building and maintaining strong global networks.
1. Promote alumni activities throughout the fellowship experience
Promoting alumni engagement activities before, during, and after the fellowship shows alumni that there are other activities for them to engage in when they return home and encourages them to begin planning for the future. This helps them see their fellowship as a lifelong journey rather than viewing it as a finite experience.
The Community Solutions program offers several activities for alumni to engage in, including alumni conferences, travel grants, and the opportunity to serve on the selection committee for future participants. Our social network analysis strongly suggests that alumni who engaged in program activities after their fellowship have more incoming connections from other alumni. Alumni who engage in these activities have the opportunity to be seen as leaders by their peers and can serve as a connection with whom other alumni can turn to for advice.
2. Engage with participants in-person and online
Offering online and in-person engagement options gives alumni the opportunity to connect and maintain relationships when they return home. Each option has strengths and limitations, which is why it is important to offer both to the network.
In-person engagement allows alumni to build deeper connections, spend quality time learning with each other, and create memories that can last a lifetime.
Community Solutions hosts an annual Solutions Summit where alumni meet in person to explore solutions for critical global issues. At these summits, alumni share stories, knowledge, and tools with each other and with key U.S. and global experts.
At the 2019 Solutions Summit in Nepal, 2015 alumnus Joshua Ogure from Kenya discussed his project with Map Kibera on engaging citizens with data and technology. This inspired 2017 alumna Jarunee Jarusruangchai from Thailand to connect with Ogure and create a similar project when she returned home.
In-person engagement doesn’t require a large event; it can happen on a smaller-scale as well. For example, Community Solutions also administers the Collaboration for Community Impact grant program, which supports fellows, alumni, and U.S. host organization partners to travel to another CSP alumni’s country to support their community development work.
In 2019, longtime host organization partner Jeffrey Weisberg of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding received the grant and traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to host a conference for CSP alumni in Europe working on peacebuilding in collaboration with 2018 alumni Aida Brdar from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dikla Lavertovsky from Israel, and 2017 alumna Mariia Levchenko from Ukraine. Nine additional CSP alumni attended the conference as well as 25 other community leaders.
With global networks, distance is often an issue. Collaborating and sharing ideas online is a way to overcome that challenge and forge new relationships.
Community Solutions’s social network analysis indicated that 89% of respondents of the alumni survey used Facebook to communicate with their peers in the program. To foster these online connections, the program manages a private Facebook group for fellows and alumni to share resources and professional development opportunities, ask for and receive support, and engage in discussions.
Programs could determine which online platforms participants prefer to use and facilitate communication between participants using those platforms.
3. Encourage cross-sector and cross-cohort engagement
Encouraging alumni to build connections with others outside of their cohort and in different sectors allows for a more enriching experience. It brings in diverse perspectives and facilitates new connections.
In addition to hosting the Solutions Summit, which brings together alumni from different cohorts and different years, Community Solutions also implements alumni-led workshops, an alumni board, and an alumni mentorship program.
“The biggest impact of the CSP fellowship was my relationship with other fellows and the larger CSP network. They taught me what it means to work together.” Livia Aninosanu, 2014 CSP alumna and current alumni board president
Through workshops, alumni can lead sessions virtually and in person during and after their fellowship experience to share insights with alumni, current fellows, and potential fellows. Through the program’s alumni board, leaders from various cohort years and sectors collaborate to design and implement initiatives. Meanwhile, the alumni mentorship program – managed by the alumni board - provides incoming fellows with support and advice from alumni within and beyond their home countries and sectors.
4. Utilize alumni influencers to engage all alumni
Alumni influencers are highly engaged and well connected within the network. These highly engaged alumni often have more connections and can inspire other alumni—who may not be as involved—to engage with the network and form connections.
Through the social network analysis, Community Solutions identified several alumni who had a significant influence in the network. Program staff can collaborate with these influencers to develop and promote alumni opportunities and increase participation for more alumni within the network. Some examples include asking alumni influencers to record short videos, facilitate skills-based trainings, and help develop communities of practice in their geographic areas.
5. Encourage multidimensional relationships
Network theory indicates that the most well connected and sustained networks are multidimensional. Encouraging different types of connections—including personal, professional, and collaborative connections—helps relationships grow stronger.
For example, Community Solutions utilizes all alumni activities to encourage connection. According to the social network analysis, 68% of alumni connections are multidimensional, collaborative, or focused on the exchange of professional resources or ideas. This indicates that the majority of the program’s network connections are strong and multifaceted.
One-dimensional relationships are those that indicate that alumni are only building personal connections. To encourage multidimensional relationships, programs can incorporate opportunities for collaboration and professional exchanges throughout the program. For instance, during the Solutions Summit, Community Solutions alumni have the opportunity to formally lead workshops and participate in panel discussions while also having downtime during meals and cultural activities to form personal bonds.
When applied simultaneously, promoting alumni activities throughout the program, engaging alumni in-person and online, encouraging cross-sector and cross-cohort connections, utilizing alumni influencers, and encouraging multidimensional relationships effectively build sustainable global networks and create long-term partnerships.
The Community Solutions Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by IREX.