Creating Resilient Networks: A Guide to Setting up and Maintaining a Network
A case study from the Southwest Grain Network
A vital part of our work in building a resilient movement is exploring what essential elements are needed for groups, connections, and networks to last. All too often, groups experience growing pains or burn-out as they get bigger or depend too long on key members of the group with limited time and energy. These challenges are universal across the movement (and other movements) and we believe that where there are common problems, there can also be common solutions. We wanted to explore: what tools and resources can be put in place that, once up and running, need little management from time-strapped group members? What roles and structures can be put in place to aid communication and avoid duplication or confusion? Will a group always come to the point of relying on a central coordinating member, and if so, how much time (and remuneration) is required?
Southwest England Coordinator Robyn Minogue had the opportunity to work with the inspirational South West Grain Network (SWGN) to explore their structure, support their growth, and use this time to explore some of these questions. While there is never a full one-size-fits-all model, there are commonalities in group structures. Our aim while working with the SWGN was to develop structural elements and learnings that could then be transferred to other groups.
We hope that groups starting up or facing similar teething issues will find this case study useful to discuss together. Please do get in touch to share your experiences!
Meet the South West Grain Network
The South West Grain Network describes itself as “South West bakers, millers & farmers who are taking active steps into an alternative grain economy, one that is human scale, non-commodity and grounded in friendship and collaboration”
The network formed after the UK Grain lab in 2018 and had been centred around Gothelney Farm and the work of Fred Price and Rosy Benson. With limited time and a reliance on volunteer labour the network had continued to move forward in its aims but was moving slowly. A natural tendency to look for leadership was perpetuating the reliance upon Fred, Rosy and Gothenly as the heart of the network, which they realised was detrimental to the long-term goals and success of the network. In collaboration with the Gaia Foundation Seed Sovereignty Programme, it was decided that Robyn Minogue would lend targeted support within her role as coordinator to advance the network into a more independent and stable position.
Through this process, Robyn and the SWGN discovered some basic structural tools they could implement in order to work towards their goal of independence. It’s important to note that this does not take into consideration issues such as decision-making processes or the long term viability of a network with regards to legal incorporation and the receipt of funds. The SWGN is in the process of developing both of these areas and are stepping very carefully and steadily ensuring the network moves forward as a whole. Currently all important decisions are made in person. Attendance at these meetings is as high (around 70%) showing the depth of connection members have to the network and its goals. The desire to move forward in unity, rather than favour a speedy approach, has lent the network strength, while the basic infrastructure of clear communication helps it to remain stable as it develops.
You can read the simple steps taken below to support your own network to establish a firm foundation.
Most groups begin from a small number of people – this emergent group would be wise to establish what the core values and aims are of the intended larger network are as a starting point to guide the development of any larger group. There is no one roadmap as to how to do this and your group may need to seek external support to help you to develop a process to come to an agreement, or you may create aims and values which you regularly re-evaluate and edit.
The SW Grain Network took a long time to develop the wording of their core values, and these will remain as a live working, evolving set of principles. The process involved the idea to solidify the core values being suggested in a large group meeting, then a working group was formed which went away to develop a proposal, this was then taken to another large group workshop where we spent a long time discussing what is important to the network overall, the values were then re-worked several times and a survey sent out to all members to agree on them – it’s better, in our experience, to work slowly and collaboratively to have a more meaningful engagement with something as central as the group’s core values.
In addition it is advisable to establish what your rules of communication and joining are. What kind of communication do you want to foster and what will you not tolerate?
Is your group for everyone or just for those in a geographical location or a particular profession? It’s ideal to be clear on these and have them written down before you begin to reach out and structure your group and its communication, however in reality things evolve and emerge organically, and you may need to periodically re-evaluate where your network is and tweak, edit or rewrite your goals, values and other guiding principles.
In addition to the more philosophical aspects of a group here are some simple actions which can greatly help the practical structuring and development of your network.
Create a network specific free gmail address such as ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’
Create a safe, but memorable, password for this email address which is shared with the core organisers of the group. A safe password is ideally 12-16 characters long and contains letters, numbers and special characters.
When you set up your gmail you will need to go through a two step authorisation with those using the account to register each device. Set up a meeting online or in person where you go through this step all together to register each device to ensure everyone has equal access.
Create a group specific signature for the end of your email which links to your website, instagram and has the core message/tag line of your group.
Create an automatic reply for your email to let those contacting you know you have received their email and may not be able to reply straight away. You may want to direct them to instagram or other means of communication depending on what works best for your group.
You will need to agree as a group how to use your email. Here are some suggestions:
Have all essential communication sent from your network email address, not individual emails.
House your password in a safe place such as Dashlane and not in notes or email.
Agree who will monitor the email and for what duration, giving the option to rotate this responsibility.
Agree how you sign off; do you have a set number of names you reply from or do you reply as yourselves?
How will you organise your email? Will you create sub folders for different topics? These need to be made clear to all using the account.
With your gmail comes a host of useful apps. Use the google drive function from your gmail to house all useful info and have all admin or planning docs created in google drive not individuals email/google drives.
Create a shared agreement as to how you will use and organise your google drive and try to stick to it and keep your drive tidy.
You may want to create separate folders for Events, Meetings, Membership, Admin, etc
Holding meetings and making notes:
In your google drive create a ‘Rolling Meeting Minutes doc’, this is a word document where you can house all of your notes from your meetings instead of creating multiple documents for each meeting.
You can make docs in google drive available to others via a link so those who could not attend can be kept up to date. You can choose if those accessing the doc have full editing rights or can simply read the notes.
Useful items to include in the Rolling Meeting Minutes are:
Date of meeting
Next meeting date and roll over items
For meetings there are different roles individuals can take on. You may not need all of these for every meeting and you may want to rotate these regularly:
Facilitator/Moderator – the person hosting the meeting, moving through the agenda, allocating who will speak and when. This is a skilled role and can take some time to develop one’s ability as a facilitator. It is wise to seek out advice and training.
Time keeper – the person who assists the moderator if topics are running over as well as keeping everyone aware of how much time is left and helping to end the meeting on time.
Note taker – the person taking full or summary notes of the meeting usually this is done live and comments are credited to named individuals speaking.
Care keeper – depending on the size and style of the meeting you may want someone to keep an eye on the heart of the meeting to make sure it does not slip too much into business or to keep an eye out if some are feeling left out or others dominating. This person may also suggest a leg stretch or a break from the screen for everyone’s health and wellbeing.
Create a regular meeting time, duration and date with a recurring zoom link (if meeting online). For example, decide as a group that you will meet once a month for an hour or once a fortnight for thirty minutes. You may decide to meet on the first Wednesday of the month from 4-5pm or every other Wednesday over your lunch break from 12-12.30.
Keeping a set rhythm makes it hard to forget when you are meeting and the regularity helps topics move forward and maintain energy and motivation.
Create a google group mailing list for your network.
Google groups is a really easy way of creating a membership list and sending out emails to the whole membership without paying for a service such as Mailchimp.
You can add members individually or enable others to add themselves to your group.
When you set up your google group everyone on the list will be able to contact everyone else by sending a message to an email such as email@example.com
Make sure to add your own network gmail address to the google group
When you add someone to the google group list you have the option to send a welcome message. This is a good place to add your code of conduct/expectations, rules of communication to the members and you can decide if members break these rules they will be removed from the group/or have some other form of intervention.
You can house your welcome message in your google drive to easily copy and paste when adding members.
Although google groups are great they are limited. You may want to use Google Forms to gain a deeper understanding of who your members are.
Use google forms to create a joining survey for all members where they can fill in details such as; name, address, email, social media handle, occupation – you can go further and ask to add details such as skills they may have to offer or tools and equipment they may be able to share. Here you can also add a tick box to show they have read and agreed to your rules of joining/communication. The google form can then be exported easily into a spreadsheet and stored in your Google Drive.
Many people now use Whatsapp as a core means of communicating and organising. Having both email and whatsapp communication channels is very useful to include all parts of your network.
Create a Whatsapp group or a whatsapp community which can house several sub groups. You can decide amongst yourselves the rules for this whatsapp – can anyone join via the link? Or are there rules such as needing to introduce yourself to be added to the group?
Create a shared code of conduct which is posted in the group description. Keep a copy of this in your Google Drive and have a rolling responsibility to monitor the chat and remove anyone who is seen to be contravening your code of conduct. This is really about keeping people safe and happy as opposed to an authoritarian approach.
When posting about events or upcoming meetings you can post to both the Whatsapp group and your Google Group list.
Alternative communication platforms:
You may wish to trial different platforms for communication such as Facebook, Slack or Discord. You’ll be able to see quickly which of these platforms works well for your network and is worth continuing with. It is wise to use the same set of guidelines for these platforms as you have established for your whatsapp and email communications and to monitor these platforms to make sure your members are being cared for and respected and removing members where necessary.
You may want to create a group identity Instagram profile and have a set of standardised hashtags you use regularly to identify yourself.
The log in details of this can be shared with other group members for member ‘take overs’ or the role of posting can be rotated amongst the group.
You will need to decide how you manage the messaging function on instagram or other platforms and potentially rotate this responsibility or disable it.
It is really useful to have a list of your group members’ instagram profiles so you can tag and share each other’s profiles easily.
Again you will need to create a set of agreements as to how you use social media, for example if only one person has the login it is not appropriate for them to post about their private business opportunities as this will favour the individual over the group.
To support the network long term all of the above structures form a baseline for stability. The maintenance of each of these ie the instagram, email, Google Group will need regular maintenance while the network as a whole, or a core organising group within the larger group, will need to check back on the original goals, aims and values to make sure the network is either on track or needs to readjust its direction and means of working.
How much time does it take to manage a network?
To cover the most basic activities listed below I’d suggest the input is a minimum of half a day a month.
Checking email, sending out reminders to attend meetings, hosting the online meetings and taking notes, sending out follow up comms, posting to instagram, sharing info on the whatsapp.
To develop more meaningful engagement, through hosting in person events and taking time to create and re-visit topics such as core values, decision making processes, legal incorporation, how one tells the story of the network or any collaborative projects, this work would need to be shared by at the very least a small group (3-5 people) or a rotating group of volunteers. If one person was coordinating the bulk of these activities then the time input purely for the organisation would be in the region of 2-3 days a month on top of the half day for basic activities.
Possible routes to funding to cover a coordinator role for your network:
To be able to receive funds as a network you would need to exist in such a form as to hold a bank account into which you can receive funds.
One option suggested by the SWGN is to form an unincorporated association, allowing your network to set up a bank account and apply for immediate funding to support network activities. A next step could be to as a Community Interest Company (CIC)
The CIC would exist to support the Network. It would work on behalf of the network, applying for funding and holding a bank account to receive and administer funding on behalf of the network. It would employ a coordinator to do this work.
The CIC would be governed by a board of directors who would be elected by the members of the Network. Therefore the Network would carry out its activities and be supported by the CIC through funding and the work of the CIC coordinator.