Making Networking Work for Youth Media

A dozen youth media nonprofit heads are better than one.
At least that’s what the consultants and funders would lead you to believe when they call for the formation of nonprofit youth media networks, as they have increasingly lately. But as any under-resourced, overtaxed nonprofit leader can attest, the benefits aren’t always worth the time and effort invested into joining their peers.
Yet with proper planning and execution, nonprofit youth media networks can create large scale social impact not possible by one organization working alone. This is especially critical given the increasing pressure for more networking and sharing from both within the field and from funders and external stakeholders. If networks are going to be established and cultivated, there are some basic preparatory tips that can make the experience useful and enjoyable for participants.
So What Are Nonprofit Networks?
Simply put, networks are sets of nodes and links that are connected to each other, according to Net Gains, a recently-released handbook on forming social networks for change.
Within the nonprofit world, social networks form when individuals connect within specific social contexts, according to Madeleine Taylor, co-author of Net Gains and principal at Arbor Consulting Partners. In this case, social networks forming around the idea of creating, producing or supporting youth media. Non-profit networking is gaining traction as a distinct research field, she said, and funders are mandating more and more networking. Youth media organizations are not immune.
Creating a network allows nonprofits to share costs and have a greater impact in advancing a social goal than going it alone, Taylor said in an interview. Networks bring together a variety of experiences and resources to tackle a common goal, such as infusing youth media into a school district’s curriculum or establishing a teaching fellowship for youth media practitioners.
There are three basic types of nonprofit social networks, according to Taylor:
Connectivity Networks: These groups function to connect people and organizations to the information they need. Membership tends to be open to increase the flow of information and relationships.
Alignment Networks: Serve to convene people around common values or language. For youth media, this could be a regularly meeting group of youth media teachers in a given city or region.
Production Networks: Help convene groups or people to produce a specific outcome. For example, forming a virtual networking group of youth radio producers to create a documentary on a specific topic.
All of these networks can be conducted face-to-face, virtually or through a hybrid.
The Why of Non Profit Networks
Nonprofit youth media leaders form networks for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to satisfy a funder’s mandate, to achieve a specific policy goal or just share their daily struggles.
The networking movement gained a lot of buzz after the release of Diana Coryat (Global Action Project) and Steve Goodman’s (Educational Video Center) seminal 2004 white paper for the Open Society Institute on developing and professionalizing the youth media field. One of the main points—crystallized in both the paper and accompanying convening—is that the lack of networking and sharing is hampering the field’s ability to grow and professionalize.
“We need to establish an effective network—on the local, regional and national levels—that will move the field beyond simply information and resource sharing to collective knowledge building; a network where administrators and practitioners at the grassroots can help each other to make sense of, and to apply new knowledge coming out of the field and in turn, to contribute back to the field the new lessons they have learned,” Coryat and Goodman write. Joining together with peers, as the authors suggest, is a deliberate strategy to escape from one’s day-to-day work and think deeply about the field of youth media, alleviating some of the isolation many youth media groups report suffering from.
“The other level, beyond Dr. Phil’s group therapy, is that (a network) is also a place to challenge people to think more deeply,” said Jeremy Engle, manager of curriculum and instruction for the Youth Media Learning Network, a New York-based fellowship network of leading youth media practitioners.
Networks can also provide the time and opportunity for individuals to contribute in a larger way to the youth media field. According to Marianne Philbin, a Chicago-based consultant and co-facilitator of the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s Youth Voices Initiative network, one of the most frequents regrets nonprofit leaders have when they reflect later in their career is that there was never enough time or opportunity for them to contribute to the field in a larger way.
“So many organizations, because they are so burdened with day-to-day management, are unable to step outside their own headquarters as much as they like and really engage with the field as a field,” she said. “And yet these are the very same leaders who have enormous expertise or ideas and significant experience to share that can have a significant impact on the field of youth media.”
Then there’s the concrete: Networks are a great way to tackle organizational capacity issues like raising money better, improving distribution and bettering teaching practices. As an added bonus, forming a nonprofit youth media network can be a method to attract additional attention and funding.
“It’s a way to say to funders that we are more efficient, we’re going to have a greater impact, so think about funding us rather than funding individual organizations,” Taylor said. “You’re going to have a competitive advantage.”
All Shapes and Sizes
There are a variety of networks already chugging along, from virtual meet-ups to face-to-face gatherings that provide concrete examples of youth media coming together for mutual gain.
The Coalition of Youth Media Partners formed in Chicago this past year, aimed at joining a diverse mix of organizations and practitioners to build the field of youth media and improve youth literacy. Led by Phil Costello, executive director of Youth Communication, the group meets bimonthly at rotating locations to discuss issues of sharing content, promoting youth media and how to build ties between programs.
What started as a brainstorming meeting of 14 individuals in August 2007 has grown into a coalition of more than 35 organizations representing after school programs, non-profit organizations and in-school partners. In addition to meetings, the Coalition also provides e-newsletter updates of events, social mixers and is conducting a survey of membership to get a picture of the field in the city.
Further north, the Twin Cities Youth Media Network brings together 15 groups to promote and support youth media makers and educators. The membership-based group is supported by the Bush Foundation and provides social events, networking opportunities and a newsletter for members. Membership costs $25/year.
Networking isn’t always face-to-face. Generation PRX, for example, acts as an online social network that encourages the creation and distribution of youth radio pieces, said Jones Franzel, Generation PRX project director. Led by youth producers, the Web site collects youth radio pieces and encourages feedback by listeners. It also helps place youth-created audio on the air at professional public radio stations across the country.
Tips from the Field:
There are endless rationales for starting or joining a youth media network. But here are a few good starting tips from the pros if you do choose to join or start a network so you can avoid endless meetings and disappointing outcomes:
Set clear groundwork expectations and structure: Though you don’t want to burden participants with too much structure – think countless meetings, requirements and follow-ups – it’s important for members to define exactly what the basic realistic obligations are for participating, whether it’s attending a meeting quarterly, posting regularly on a blog, etc. This will make the time requirements clear upfront. Engle, of the Youth Media Learning Network, notes that though participants may initially resist structure with agendas, they “really appreciate it after meeting two or three times.”
Hone in the purpose of the network: No one’s going to solve all the ills of the youth media sector with a few breakfast meetings. It sounds basic, but set clear, manageable goals for what the network hopes to achieve, whether it’s hosting a local festival of youth-produced media or providing leadership training. “I think coming together and saying, ‘Now we’re going to be the Florida Youth Media Network and we are going to address every area like fundraising, development, and capacity building’ won’t work,” said Tim Dorsey, director of the Youth Media Learning Network.
Have the tough conversations: Many youth media networkers report that there’s often a hundred-ton gorilla in the room—the prickly questions that the group needs to address in order to make progress and move forward. Whether it’s “defining” youth media or the role of social justice or artistic expression, it’s important to explore these issues in a respectful manner early on, but after the group has become comfortable as a unit. Avoiding these conversations can prevent a deeper, more meaningful connection among members and slow progress in meeting the network’s objectives.
Make sure there are benefits of participation—and that they’re clear: Every network participant should be able to clearly define their top three goals for participating, Philbin advises. “It can’t just be purely altruistic like the abstract notion of betterment of the field,” she said. “How is it useful to members as individual nonprofit leaders? What are they going to take back that will help them with their day to day work?” If participants don’t know what they’re going to get out of it, they won’t participate and contribute regularly.
Take the time to build trust: It sounds elementary and cliché, but successful networks are built on trust. Make sure to include informal networking time for members to get to know each other, especially in the beginning. At the Youth Media Learning Initiative, for example, they’ve built in that time for the participants to get to know each other before tackling the task at hand. With the fellowship running the entire school year, “You can’t immediately one day say when you start, ‘What the hell are you doing, and why?’,” Engle said.
Accept that it will be slow: Nearly every practitioner and expert consulted advised that progress toward the network’s initial goal will happen much slower than expected. It’s the nature of networks. There tends to be a performance lag in networks with members who don’t know each other because it takes time to build that trust, Taylor said. Expect that, and don’t get discouraged.
Think small: When starting a new network, it can pay off to start on a smaller, more informal scale, especially if there is no outside funding available. You can start with semi-regular breakfast meetings or a Facebook virtual group. “Building a network doesn’t have to be a million-dollar initiative,” Dorsey said. “It can be about as something as basic as an informal breakfast group or inter-organizational study group that happens on an occasional basis.”
Be realistic about the administrative burden: Even the most informal networks take administrative nurturing, which takes time away from participants’ daily work. Be realistic about the administrative reality – and establish various volunteer roles to ensure meetings are held, participants are contacted and leaders are elected as needed, Philbin advises. “This may be the ‘tedious’ part of forming a network, but having basic infrastructure is key to the scope of work that collaboration requires,” she said.
Consider a neutral facilitator or convener: When possible, selecting a neutral organizer or leader, whether a funder or intermediary youth media organization, can take away perceived competitiveness or benefit among participating members. Generation PRX, an online youth radio exchange, aims to do just that by connecting a variety of youth radio producers virtually from across the country. “People can trust that we’re really motivated by promoting the entire field,” Franzel said. “Sometimes if it’s a single group, there’s a perception that one group reaps the benefits.”
Snacks: And finally, everyone reported that with face-to-face meetings, having snacks is correlated directly with increased attendance. So don’t forget the pretzels.
For more tips and resources on successful networks, check out:
NET GAINS: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, Version 1.0 (2006). By Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor. Available for download at:
The Barr Foundation: Based in Boston, this Foundation has a thorough section on Networks in its Resource page.
Movement as Network: Connecting People and Organizations in the Environmental Movement. By Gideon Rosenblatt. Provides an interesting case study of social networking in the environmental movement. Available for download at:
– Developing the Youth Media Field: Perspectives from Two Practitioners (2004). By Diana Coryat and Steve Goodman. Available for download at:
Sara Melillo is a journalism program officer for the McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. The Foundation’s journalism program invests in organizations working in News Leadership, Free Speech, Journalism Education and Youth Media.
Note: Marianne Philbin co-facilitates the Foundation’s Youth Voices Initiative Network, a network of Chicago-area youth media grantees.