Exploring Network Health of Alumni Networks


Co-authored by Eli Malinsky & Charlotte Carnehl

Attention on alumni networks usually centers on their impact on members, mission, and broader society. While this focus on network impact is undoubtedly essential, there’s an equally critical yet less explored area: network health. Network health is fundamental for building and sustaining impactful networks. But what is network health? And how can we assess it? In this article, we’d like to share what we learned on a small journey to uncover the nuances of what makes a network functional and healthy.

This article results from the online session “Measuring network health as the key for lasting impact of alumni networks” (March 19, 2024). It combines Eli’s facilitation input with the collective wisdom of the 30+ network-curious participants.

Small Foundation’s Framework of Network Health

Small Foundation has developed a framework detailing seven aspects of network health. It looks like this:

This framework is a helpful aid to start our thinking around network health. Four areas stand out to us:

  1. Healthy networks have clarity and alignment of purpose and principles—and activities are designed with these principles in mind.
  2. Healthy networks are integrated with the systems that surround them—they engage with external stakeholders.
  3. Healthy networks talk about their future—and succeed in resolving conflicts.
  4. Healthy networks have defined governance structures and agreements—they are intentional and transparent about their processes.

But some assumptions are less clear and leave us with open questions:

  • Is the equitable sharing of resources and power always a feature of a healthy alumni network?
  • Is it possible for network coordinators to serve goals beyond the interests or priorities of members?
  • Is it always the case that healthy networks serve member’s organizations as well as the members themselves?
  • Are there distinctive features of alumni networks that require tailored measures of network health?

Ultimately, we discovered, that there’s no objective measure of network health; assessments of network health must be grounded in the specific structure, context, and aims of the network. When exploring additional indicators of network health, we realized that there might be one helpful addition to Small Foundation’s framework:

Adding “Quality of Connections”

The above framework is quite matter-of-fact and might benefit from the inclusion of one additional measure of network health that is central to many of the networks we know: the quality of connections.

Given that networks are based on connections between their members, the quality of these relationships can be an indicator of network health. Some networks might be healthy because of long-lasting, deep, and personal connections, others because of useful transactional relationships.

Assessing network health

We now have some ideas about how to think about network health. As a next step, let’s examine how we can determine whether our networks are healthy.

In our session, participants highlighted the critical role of qualitative insights over numerical data alone, advocating for a narrative-rich approach. This perspective prioritizes stories and personal experiences, suggesting that the actual vitality of a network is best captured through anecdotes and reflection. Such a qualitative emphasis aims to uncover the depth of member engagement, the initiative to lead conversations, and the overall quality of interpersonal connections. Understanding the motivations and perceived successes of those who build and sustain the network can also offer a meaningful gauge of its health.

What can you do to enhance your network’s health?

If you’re working with networks, you might be curious about what you can do to enhance the health of your network. While the approaches will be diverse, here’s a peek into what the participants of our meeting are setting out to tackle next:

  • Targeting specific members: One approach is to try to reach the “spider humans” in a network—those people who act as network glue, multipliers, and connection builders—and encourage them to play an active role in contributing to network health. Another way lies in targeting the outermost circle of a network with the next planned activity, ensuring that members who are further away from the core are (re)activated and potentially become more engaged.
  • Creating spaces: Networks thrive from connection. Creating spaces for these connections to emerge and persist is another meaningful intervention. These spaces can take many shapes: Spaces where alumni and new program members meet, an online platform, or spaces for emotional connection and knowledge sharing. Whichever space we’re creating, it should be one where members feel empowered to show their whole authentic selves.

Would you like to dig deeper?

During our session, participants shared several resources that influenced their thinking about network health: