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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

The Community Network Solution

  • Who do you consider highly innovative?
  • Who brings ideas about the “big picture” to his or her efforts?
  • Who has the integrity, concern for the common good, and guts needed to get this project done?
  • Who would roll up his or her sleeves in order to see this project through to the very end?
  • Who would you depend on to help bring together local resources?

We received 4,800 responses, which netted 4,300 nominations. We sorted, cross-filed, and indexed the answers to these surveys, and identified the people most frequently nominated by others as trustworthy. (Nominating oneself didn’t count.) These were our connectors. In Philadelphia, there were 101 such people: 46 percent working in the nonprofit sector, 33 percent in business, 15 percent in government, and only 6 percent in academia. Two-thirds of the nominees were over age 40; 58 percent were male, 42 percent female. Sixty-nine percent had graduate degrees, 26 percent only undergraduate degrees, and 5 percent had no degrees. And although more than 68 percent of the group had grown up somewhere else, these non-native connectors had lived in Philadelphia, on average, for 24 years.

Stage Two represented an effort to understand why connectors had become connectors. In Philadelphia, for instance, we interviewed 80 out of the 101 people. We asked them to describe their life stories, identify their mentors, and tell us whether they saw themselves as connectors, and if so, why. We asked them to think about the other people in their network who seemed to “know everyone,” and to describe what all those connectors had in common. We asked them to rate themselves on a scale that ranged from pessimistic to optimistic, and to indicate how comfortable they were at starting new friendships. And we asked them to describe a local civic initiative in which they had participated that required that they connect across sectors.

Finally, we asked them to respond to a very different kind of survey — one designed so the responses could be easily analyzed by map-generating software. We showed participants a list of the other connectors and asked them to put a check next to the name of:

  • Everyone they considered to be a part of their local community.
  • Everyone they believed had the expertise to put ideas into action.
  • Everyone with whom they would like to work.

With these answers, we were able to map correspondences that showed potential as well as actual paths for collaboration. 

Connecting the Connectors
There’s no question that connectors have the potential to change their community landscape. They have the collaborative skills to get re­sources flowing. Their connections across sectors can inspire a wide level of trust. But we have learned how much more powerful they can be when connected in a deliberate fashion.

In Philadelphia, for example, we examined four economic sectors: nonprofit, private, government, and academic. We also recorded the genders and ethnic backgrounds of the people we interviewed. The nature of the connections varied depending on the questions. For example, when people identified others with “expertise,” we found strong male-to-female links among different types of businesses (real estate, law, and financial services among them) and very strong links between business- and nonprofit-sector ex­ecutives. But the links among those two groups and government agencies (whether local or state) were very weak, and academia came up last. Ironically, the “expert” status enjoyed by many government and academic leaders may undermine their ability to exchange knowledge with others.

Our interviews revealed other significant findings. We noted that connectors had been drawn to the community by their desire to make a difference. Not surprisingly, we also found that connectors were nonconformists. Finally, despite the small number of connectors in academia and the lack of connections among university people, the connectors told us that they had gotten their start as informal leaders through people they met within the university crucible.

 
 
 
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