It’s easy to forget—when you work at the world’s largest philanthropy and give away billions of dollars each year—that at the heart of the complex systems we seek to change are people. These people may feel powerless and yet, they have the power to change hundreds of lives within their own communities. Their most powerful hidden asset? Ironically, it’s the same as our foundation’s superpower: their network, of course.
I was reminded of the power of social networks when Nicholas Christakis recently gave a talk at the foundation. He discussed many provocative ideas, but the most powerful one for me was the “friendship paradox.” It is the idea that my friends’ networks are larger than my own. Like when I send out a LinkedIn invite to my friend Leslie, I see she already has 500+ followers. Christakis argues if we want to affect large-scale change in the world, we don’t have to go any further than the individuals in the villages, schools, or clinics in which we work. They already belong to networks with structures and functions that can be leveraged for good. It’s a rather low-tech solution to scale and one of our most valuable assets as a foundation.
We’ve been experimenting for the past three years with peer networks as a vehicle for scale on the K12 education team. Not knowing Christakis’s research (a tell-tale sign I need to network more with our colleagues on the Family Planning and Maternal Newborn & Child Health teams), our team relied on research [related to social movement theory, design thinking, behavior change, professional capital, social network analyses, and trends in digital communities] to launch an effort called Teacher2Teacher. The idea was simple: Teachers are isolated; they want to talk to other teachers; they trust most other teachers’ ideas. What would happen if we simply connected these teachers to each other online? By leveraging their most valuable asset—their networks—
they could create what I once called an epidemic of good practice. This was less about a specific intervention and more about learning how to share innovations, questions they would ask of each other, and whether they would improve each other’s practice simply by participating in the part of the community. Our aim was to create a tipping point.
Christakis’s research confirms (with algorithms and software no less) why Teacher2Teacher works and why the benefits of social connection far outweigh those of isolation. We’ve learned so much about what teachers care about and what resonates with them now that the community is 1.3M strong. The strength of the community is mostly thanks to the “friendship paradox” and the genius of my K12 colleagues and social media mavens, program officers Emily Lockwood and Kenie Richards!
Teacher2Teacher isn’t simply an investment or a competition to see how many “likes” we can get by American teachers. It’s a symbol for thinking differently about how we affect social change in the world and how we can leverage on- and offline networks. It’s a reminder that there are real people with whom we interact… at the heart of the complex systems we are trying to change (e.g. powerful policies, world leaders, markets, and capacity building organizations). These people have an asset far more powerful than the foundation’s money – yes, it’s their network. What if once in a while we took a break from all the logic models and high-level meetings to slow down enough to take notice of their superpower instead of ours. It might just be the most powerful pause we take.
P.S. This is likely the last post to this blog site that I will make. You can find all the past posts sans the recipes on Medium and I’ll be starting a new blog series based on new work I’m engaged in! Stay tuned.