Building Thriving Networks

Alicia Trepat Pont

February 3, 2022

There’s a lot of love in our network, but not enough care”, “We don’t have enough money to cover our admin costs this year”, “People are here for the connections and are not aware that they require a minimal common structure to maintain them”, “The members of our network are getting more and more paid-projects through the network, but common finances are decreasing each year”, “People take the care needed to sustain a healthy community for granted”.

If you’ve ever been in a supporting role related to finances or value flows in a community or network, you can surely relate to some of these situations.

That’s why a couple of years ago a few colleagues and I decided to create a course that would support networks to intentionally work on their money and value flows. It’s called Thriving Networks.

We’re aware that there are many more elements that are needed for a network to thrive, but we wanted to bring attention and inquiry in these areas (money and value) and so in 2021 we started with the first two cohorts.

This article provides an overview of the framing of the course and why we have chosen this focus.

After many years of working in communities and networks, struggles around value and money flows are some of the most common patterns we have seen. We work hard building mini-systems that fight the scarcity of the socio-economic system we live in, yet inevitably, those scarcity patterns reappear in the systems we create.

Photo credits: Sylvain Paley

There are many reasons for this, and over the years one key element that we have seen provoke deeper reflections and give us a vocabulary to have challenging discussions is the work on commoning and money.

For some readers, it might be painful to see these two words together. We are critical about the money system altogether, but since we operate in a context where it’s necessary to deal with it and, many of the networks we are in or in touch with avoid the topic or are not relating to it in a strategic way, we decided to take this approach.

This course is not for just any type of network, but what we’re calling “purpose networks”: from professional to livelihood-focused networks, online to locally rooted communities, communities of practice or interest, to “neo-guilds”, movements, to DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations). What they all share is that they have a larger purpose and intention to catalyze action, beyond connecting people and organizations; people and planet wellbeing are at the center.

And within those networks what does it mean to thrive?

We don’t think that in the complexity of networks it’s possible to find a perfect model or solution. There is no network out there that has figured this all out, a “perfect thriving network”. We have been developing a set of elements through our experience in our own networks, the ones we have worked with and the +35 networks that have gone through the first 2 cohorts of the Thriving Networks course. These elements are not complete and they might differ depending on the network’s culture; these are also not boxes to be ticked. Thriving networks might be in tension with some of those elements, but they are aware of it and look for ways to deal with those tensions and imbalances.

Network elements to be explored

  • Purpose & Values
  • Relationships
  • Rituals & Culture
  • Emergent Strategy
  • Weaving & Facilitating
  • Money & Value flows
  • Membership & contribution levels
  • Governance & Decision-Making
  • Communication (infra)structures
  • Conflict resolution and dealing with tensions
  • Being explicit and reflecting on Power-relations

Of all of these elements, the Thriving Networks course focuses on money and value flows. To understand the role these two elements play in networks, we like to use the metaphor of water running through the swales of a permaculture field.

This is not a permaculture field. It’s water running through a landscape, fostering life wherever it goes.

by Mario Álvarez on Unsplash

1. Value and money, flowing like water

A first step is to work on building awareness around:

  • What do we value in our network?
  • What is our relationship to money? And what is our relationship to money as a collective?

And here are some experiences and mechanisms that support groups to reflect on their relationship to value and money:

  • Money Game — an experience to discover one’s patterns in relation to money (learn more about the game here)
  • Love Berries — a group mechanism to acknowledge and bring to light invisible value flows from members of the cohort, ex: someone shared a very useful resource or someone else shares their feelings openly with the group, these often go unnoticed or at least, not recognised, but provide immense value.

2. Channeling the flow with structural elements

In permaculture we build swales to channel the water where it’s needed. Likewise there are structural elements that are necessary in networks to channel the value and money flows, once we are aware of them:

  • Decision-Making around money:
    Group decision-making is a whole field of its own. We review the basics and focus on financial decision making practices. Here you can read more about some of the common challenges related to money in networks and ideas on how to tackle them.
  • Levels of engagement and contribution pathways:
    This is a simple, yet powerful tool for collectives: what are the different levels in which people can be engaged in your network? This gives a frame to the value flows (channeling the water): what is expected and wished for each of those levels of engagement? What are the roles that emerge from that? How can people contribute to your network? The answer to these questions need high alignment to what we value in our network.

To support these structural elements, we show and use tools and mechanisms developed and used by networks around the world. Among others, these are:

  • Cobudget — a tool for collaborative budgeting.
  • Happy Money Story — a mechanism to distribute money that is aligned with what we value in our network.

3. Leadership — Being gardeners

Peter Koenigs “source” concept suggests that each initiative (a network, for example) has a source; someone who started the project with a specific intention. That person holds the vision of the initiative, and much like a gardener, takes cares of their creation and provides direction for it. This concept might sound counterintuitive to the idea of distributed power and is not free of controversy, but in our experience, acknowledging the “source” can actually unlock collective leadership capacity.

4. Caring for the soil — Underlying elements

There are two main elements that we do touch on in the course indirectly, because they are the basis of the ecosystems we create in our networks:

  • The first is commoning:
    Commoning — our way of being together and what is co-created through those relationships (commons)- is the basis of a thriving network. Our commons need special care (boundaries, stewards, awareness, etc.), and if they are not cared for, common resources are drained or co-opted by the system.
  • The second is power:
    Our networks come from a context of a capitalistic system. Even if some are engaged in creating counter-hegemonic networks, it’s important to remember where we come from and be aware of the power-relations that we are creating or replicating. Be observant and to learn to discern if the value and money flows we are creating in our network are recreating power-over dynamics (characteristic of capitalism). It’s an inquiry-process we take with us throughout the life of a network.

To continue with the metaphor, commoning & power could be the soil of our permaculture field, we need to constantly give it the care it needs to be a proper basis for what we want to grow.

Our biggest takeaway: the relationships that emerge during the journey.

We’ve put a lot of care and effort into developing the course, but we’re aware (and happy!) that the most valuable experiences participants get are the relationships built during the course. Network leaders from all over the globe are able to share their experiences and learn from each other at a deep level. They go through group dynamics and personal discovery journeys and become the biggest source of learning for each other.

This is the permaculture garden we want to keep caring for so that many more networks can thrive.


If you would like to experience this for yourself, check out our upcoming dates for our next cohort of Thriving Networks.


Top image credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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