How do you build a network? 5 questions we've been exploring
As we come to the end of 2.5 years of delivering the Culture Collective programme, I've been reflecting on the process of bringing together 26 projects, and some 500+ artists, to form what's turned into the most incredibly supportive and nourishing network. I've also been interviewed recently about the process of network building - part of an ongoing research project by Victoria Beesley for the Young Audience Group. These opportunities to reflect on our process was super-helpful, and has resulted in the emergence of five key questions that I feel have come to shape our approach to network-building:
1. Why would people bother to be part of it?
We've all been invited to be part of networks that quickly become obligations - you attend because you were asked to, or because you feel you should, or (worse) because you paid to join. We all like the sound of networking, but the reality can quickly feel like a chore. If you're thinking of starting a new network - really consider what would make people actively want to be part of it. What would make them prioritise the time for attendance over (paid) work? The benefits to participation need to be really clear.
2. How easy can we make it?
In addition to showing up, what else are you asking of people? To navigate complicated sign-up processes? To listen to interminable speeches? To wade through processes of reviewing documents and approving minutes? Being part of a network shouldn't need to come with heavy admin processes. How light-touch can you make it? How much of that process can you take off people's shoulders? Building networks that are fun, enjoyable, creative spaces to be in really helps people find the enthusiasm to contribute to them.
3. How are you going to juggle competing priorities?
Much as any community is made up of people with different views, wants and needs, so too with a network. That diversity might be a strength, but it will also challenge and test your processes of care. What if some people can only meet in the evenings, and others during the working day? What about those who live outside the central belt, or who have caring responsibilities, or who are just really shy, or knackered? What if attendees have different aspirations for the role of the network? It's impossible to please everyone all the time, but how you handle these questions will make your priorities visible. We aimed for a mix of meeting days and times to give people a choice of attending, and combined regular online meetings (quick, cheap, accessible for our network) with occasional - but really special - face to face gatherings.
4. [How] do you aim for self-sufficiency?
Will the network always be 'looked after', and if so, by whom? How does that coordination role affect the vibe, power dynamics, and contributions of others, and how is that managed? Or do you hope that you can bring people together then leave them to get on with it? Our experience is that self-sustaining groups are possible, but that they may well need a significant spell of guidance, support and resourcing first. What support can you offer people to help them to become self-sustaining, if that's the aspiration?
5. How do we resource it?
This is critical. Networks are often seen as a cheap win; a low-cost means of getting more value from the people you already have. If this sounds familiar: proceed with caution. Under-resourced networks can easily entrench existing power dynamics, especially around access, travel, and the pay disparity between freelancers and salaried staff. Properly resourcing your network means you can protect the space to have more open, equitable conversations, where people are treated fairly and can contribute in a way that works for them. Networks might be great value, but we shouldn't expect them to be cheap.