The Science of Making a Difference



There is an African proverb that states, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Dense networks are an incarnation of going together. If you're serious about making a difference in society or influencing culture, then it's time to understand the power of organizations united in a compelling cause. Social science and network science affirm that the main actor on the stage of social change is not the lone individual but the dense network.


What difference does it really make to invest in a dense network?


Over the past decades, there have been numerous groups that have rallied their fundraising constituents with claims of “winning the world” or “reshaping culture” by such and such a date, usually by mass mobilization or political activism. Academically, this is nonsense. Cultural change is slow, difficult, incremental, and unpredictable. However, it does happen. There are numerous historical examples of dense networks making significant changes in society to the point of redefining reality: the rise of Christianity, the abolition of slavery, the rise of Russian communism, Jewish admission to elite universities, the civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ+ equality movement. Dense networks are the way things get done in society.


A mere collection of people or network is not actually a dense network. The difference is the degree to which people have aligned themselves—and ideally their own motivations—to a shared cause. A dense network requires balancing a high degree of missional solidarity with relational sociality. A disparate collection of people must be consciously mobilized toward collective action.


This is the weaknesses of most faith-based organizations, who talk warmly of “community,” but do little to mobilize its collective potential. There may be talk of individually reaching a particular city or neighborhood, but the emphasis continues to be on individual action rather than collective mobilization. Other organizations have a failure of imagination. They don’t embrace with any confidence a big picture cause—the parallel to the abolition of slavery or equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. Painting a particular school is hardly the same thing as reducing the illiteracy rates of elementary age students in a city. We tend to not think big enough.


Patagonia is a company committed to a big picture ecological thinking. Patagonia’s corporate goal is not to sell clothes or climbing equipment, but to use the business as a means of recruiting people for environmental activism to address the climate crisis.[1] They invest one percent of their profits in supporting environmental groups. They are active in training environmental activists. But in spite of all their past efforts and financial investments, they felt that this was not doing enough in the light of the impending climate crisis, so they added a strategy called Patagonia Action Works. Their general awareness that a network strategy was necessary is commendable. However, on closer examination their effort does not go far enough. Their focus is only on “recruitment,” not on mobilization. They have used a social media app to help connect their customers with local groups to which they have provided environmental financial support, their grantees. One might think of Patagonia Action Works as a dating app for environmental activists. This is a necessary first step but is not sufficient to mobilizing a dense network. It is my impression that they are gathering groups around a local environmental need but are not empowered these groups once organized to be maximally effective. They are building networks, but not ones that are sufficiently dense according to the rules of network science.


Likewise the Faith Angle Forum is a group of center-institution journalists who meet regularly to better inform their journalistic writing on matters of faith and democracy. Like the typical church-community, their focus is on better equipping themselves rather than collectively providing leadership to the crisis of journalistic legitimacy that prevails in American society. This is a squandered opportunity when the public confidence in mainstream media and journalism is collapsing. This is a network that could be meaningfully mobilized to address the public perception of “fake news,” which is systemically undermining the fourth estate of democracy. The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle called the press the “Fourth Estate of the Realm.” By this he meant that it acted as a sort of watchdog of the constitution and, as such, formed a vital part of democratic government. However, with the ideological fragmentation of cable news, with the collapse of a shared national press because of social media, the reality of partisan politics, this is more than just a professional crisis but a national one. Merely writing periodic op-eds on the topic, as say David Brooks is apt to do in The New York Times, is not nearly adequate to the systemic changes that are necessary if this crisis of journalistic legitimacy is to be abated. This opportunity remains.


Few institutions have suffered more from the Covid-19 pandemic than colleges and universities. Most of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States are heavily dependent on admission tuition for their survival. These are institutions that exist with little financial elasticity. On top of this university leadership are all aware of the coming changes in demographics that will significantly reduce the pool of potential college freshmen. “The bottom line is that many of the nation’s colleges and universities will face declining or stagnant student enrollment rates beginning in about six years, a reality which will require a thoughtful, strategic approach to ensure the viability and sustainability of those institutions.”[2] This coming reality is now accelerated by the pandemic and by the changing attitudes of students towards the economic value of a college degree. Most second-tier colleges and universities are facing a crisis of survival. Admissions for the fall 2021 are down on average ten percent in total applications.[3] Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen predicts in Forbes that fifty percent of colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.[4]


And yet, all of these institutions have organized existing networks of alumni. Few of them have been mobilized as a dense network to assist in this potential admissions crisis. Rather than integrating development, alumni relations, and admissions, these vital institutional functions remain departmentally siloed and rarely mobilized around a shared cause. Everyone knows that “word-of-mouth” advertising is the most effective. These alumni networks are wasted potential dense networks. There are some exceptions to the rule. Grove City College has a powerful alumni network. In the midst of the pandemic, over 3,000 alumni attended the carefully planned alumni weekend in the fall of 2020. To the administration’s surprise, admissions numbers increased during the pandemic admissions cycle. For most colleges and universities mobilizing their latent networks in service to admissions is going to be a necessity.


All philanthropic organizations are organized around a limited set of funding priorities, known as “donor intent.” Over the years of providing grants, they have a wide number of grantees who are involved in common activities around which the foundation is deeply committed. Few foundations have sought to mobilize these grantees as a dense network. Some foundations host conferences for grantees on an annual basis, but few foundations mobilize their grantees toward a larger cause concept in spite of the grantees indebtedness to the foundation. Participation in an ongoing dense network could easily be stipulated as a condition of their grant, thereby furthering the impact and reach of the foundation’s financial investment.


Think tanks and research centers typically advocate for a defined political ideology or school of thought. The more academically-oriented organizations have typically depended on traditional mentoring relationships (faculty, graduate, and post-doctorate students) as the basis of their networks. In some of these organizations the school of thought remains latent and ill-defined as it is not clear enough to be articulated as an organizing cause concept. In most cases the school of thought when defined is not able to be articulated in simple straightforward manner. In the academy high marks are given to complexity and ambiguity, the academic “on the other hand...” In addition, most academic scholars are not known a catalytic charismatic leaders as academic decorum and departmental deference generally precludes such presentations of self. The counter example of Martin Seligman and positive psychology as well as The Federalist Society proves the power of dense networks organized around a defined school of thought. Dense networks are where institutional leverage is achieved.


In American society collaboration is rarely rewarded. We prefer the lone winner, the celebrated genius, the celebrity who graces the cover of People or Christianity Today magazines. The power of dense networks is a much harder story to tell and so the narrative about their power to make lasting social change is muted. It is often only in the hindsight of history that their importance becomes apparent as seen in historian Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower.


Network science has shown that not only does much of natural reality functions as a dense network, but also that it does so according to strict rules. Organizational leaders who want to make a difference in the world, who want to expand their market share, who want to mobilize the loyalty of their customers, who want to leave a lasting legacy would do well to reevaluate the priority they place on establishing a dense network within their field of influence. For some it is about more than success, it may be the difference in their long-term survival.


This is an excerpt from David John Seel, Jr.’s book, Network Power: The Science of Making a Difference, which is forthcoming this summer.

[1] Https://www.patagonia.com/actionworks/about/. [2] Missy Cline, “The Looming Higher Ed Enrollment Cliff,” https://www.cupahr.org/issue/feature/higher-ed-enrollment-cliff/. [3] Https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2021/02/01/full-story-admissions-isnt-just-what-youve-been-reading/. [4] Michael Horn. “Will Half of All Colleges Really Close in the Next Decade?,” Forbes, December 13, 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2018/12/13/will-half-of-all-colleges-really-close-in-the-next-decade/?sh=7a51284452e5/.

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