Strengthening civil society networks in Jordan: Three principles for an evidence-informed learning agenda
Civil society organizations can be much more effective when they work together in networks, but strengthening networks can be complicated. We’d like to share how we’ve used lean approaches to conduct research about networks, plus three principles for strengthening networks.
At IREX, we believe that networks can dramatically increase the social impact of civil society. Put simply, networks create impact that is more than the sum of their individual parts. When we consider approaches for strengthening civil society at scale, we’re keen to leverage network building and development expertise.
For example, we recently used a lean approach to learn more about civil society networks in Jordan. We partnered with the King Hussein Foundation (KHF) to map and understand the nature of civil society networks. Because there is little research and evidence about civil society networks in Jordan and we knew that we were just scratching the surface, we wanted to invest in understanding how we could continue learning about what makes these networks work and where they see opportunities for growth.
Our approach to lean research: Use rapid, low-cost activities to uncover critical information for deeper consideration
It’s not always possible or desirable to develop a research initiative that can answer every question we want to ask. In Jordan, we used a lean research approach to collect as much information as we could with the time that we had and do so in a way that would allow us to build on this research in the future.
In partnership with KHF, we developed a brief, 15-question survey to inform the basis of our network mapping activity. The survey helped us understand the number, type, and frequency of network connections among civil society actors in Jordan. We solicited responses from 101 KHF employees and received 80 responses. The survey questions explored the network connections’ strength, purposes, and frequency of communication for five categories of institutions:
- Other local NGOs, community-based organizations, civil society organizations, and royal NGOs
- Decision-makers and government bodies
- Think tanks, research centers, and academia
- Professional and private-sector associations
We also organized a virtual learning session with seventeen Jordanian civil society organizations in March 2021. The session provided valuable qualitative data on the challenges facing Jordanian civil society networks and the opportunities for increased engagement, trust, and inclusion.
Equipped with findings from the quantitative survey and qualitative research, we are now using an intentional “learning pause” to reflect on what we are learning and how we can structure our learning about civil society networks in Jordan so that they can better represent the interests of citizens. To accomplish this, we developed three learning principles for civil society networks in Jordan and learning questions that we believe will support learning for future civil society programming.
Principle 1: Consider the quality of network connections, not just the quantity
During the virtual learning session, we heard that Jordanian civil society faces a persistent challenge in engaging with citizens and grassroots actors. According to one participant, “The goals of CSOs are sometimes not clear to the stakeholders. They don’t know what the CSOs do.”
This remark echoed our survey results indicating that the majority of civil society network connections are lateral connections across civil society. We found that the majority of these connections also focus on NGOs, civil society organizations, community-based organizations, and royal NGOs.
Our learning based on this research suggests that it is imperative to better understand how civil society engages “down” with citizens and grassroots actors. Our learning questions under this principle explore how civil society might grow engagement with these stakeholders:
- How do civil society organizations currently engage constituents? How much does this engagement inform their advocacy goals and network development?
- How might capacity building initiatives strengthen civil society connections with citizens?
- What current models of constituent engagement are effective?
- What models of engagement are less relevant?
Principle 2: Capacity development initiatives may be more transformative through networks
Drawing on network development research as well as IREX’s own deep civil society and network building experience, we identified potential network-based capacity development efforts as potentially transformative in Jordan.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about their research on networked civil society, Jennifer Chandler and Kristen Scott Kennedy discuss how investing in networks creates a multiplier effect: “As network members become engaged, the network itself begins to constitute a valuable ‘bank account’ of relationships.... This bank account of relationships expands opportunities for learning and problem solving, accelerates innovative approaches, and ultimately creates a resilient web of resources that yields more sustainable and effective nonprofit organizations.”
Using a “networked” approach to investing in Jordanian civil society may generate capacity improvements beyond what individual grant-making approaches could achieve because a networked approach leverages the differentiated strengths of network members. To unpack this learning principle, we have developed the following learning questions:
- How might grantmaking approaches in Jordan build on existing networks?
- Where might grantmaking approaches help foster emergent networks?
- Are there places where investing in network capacity might stimulate impact at scale beyond more individual NGO capacity building approaches?
Principle 3: Prioritize network edges for growth
Through our network mapping exercise with KHF, we explored how five categories of institutions interact with each other. We found that most of the institutions engaged with media organizations less frequently and more superficially than they engaged with each other.
This is important because as Beth Kanter, author of The Networked Nonprofit, has noted, network “edges” are vital to network growth. Network edges represent the places where people and institutions may have some connections already that can be developed and expanded. Therefore, strengthening partnerships with media organizations may be a particularly promising opportunity for Jordanian civil society. We think there are several important learning questions related to this principle:
- What are the challenges for Jordanian civil society in building network connections with the media?
- What are the challenges for the media in working with NGOs?
- Where are network partnerships already successful?
- Where do incentives and goals for media and civil society align to promote networks? Where do they diverge?
More capable networks of civil society organizations could play a critical role in representing the interests of citizens and increasing civil engagement in Jordan. The principles above provide a good starting point for how to leverage networks, but digging deeper into the associated learning questions will provide a more nuanced understanding to ensure context specific and data-informed approaches for Jordan.