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Friday Forum Followup: The Importance of 'How' and 'Why' in Nonprofit Network Advocacy

How do nonprofit policy networks function and why do they function the way they do? Humphrey School of Public Affairs Professor Jodi Sandfort grapples with these questions, and last Friday she presented her most recent research on non-profit network advocacy to a full room of interested students, staff, peer faculty, and community practitioners as part of CIL's Friday Leadership Research Forum Series . Sandfort's work aims to expand existing research, which generally attributes differences in activity to the funding relationships nonprofit networks have with governments. To Sandfort, this type of explanation was incomplete, so she set out to explore other explanatory factors.

Her comparative analysis of two similarly structured networks illuminated a divergence that could not be explained simply by funding structures and typical quantitative measures of network attitudes. A 'yes' or 'no' to a question simply wasn't very helpful to answer the 'how's and 'why's of network activities. Through extensive qualitative case study research, Sandfort examined the advocacy tactics of the networks. This analysis, underpinned by 'practice theory,' illustrates why both networks could claim to have served the political community by providing expertise, but one was much more effective in getting politicians to align with their views. For instance, though both groups communicated with policy makers actively, only one knew the practical language to use to share knowledge in a jargon-free way. The tactics of how one group connects with policy makers, not just if they do, can be of the utmost importance to the ultimate outcomes, and is very much unexplored.

While much of this research seems intuitive, there really isn't much explanatory data to enlighten what networks are and what they do, as well as how networks work, and why they work that way. Sandfort's findings open up doors for broader network research, and the effects of practice theory. For practitioners, it sheds light on the strengths and weaknesses of 'best practices' and comparing one's activities to other similar groups.

Personally, as a perpetual asker of 'why do we do it this way?' and 'how could it be done better?,' sometimes to the annoyance of teammates or more linear thinkers, this reassured me that in nearly any field these secondary questions can prove incredibly helpful to understanding outcomes. Practitioners and scholars alike should probe these questions throughout any initiative.


Please join us for our February forum with Carlson School of Management Professor Dan Forbes. On February 24th he will be sharing insights from his recent work Designing Entrepreneurial Teams: Evidence from University-Based Startups. Please register here.

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