The Power of Informal Networks

by Scott London

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

These words by anthropologist Margaret Mead are famous for good reason. They capture an essential truth about social change: it begins in the most unassuming contexts — in small groups of people who share a common passion, who come together after work, on weekends, or over lunch, and who devote their talents and energies to bringing about change.

I recently wrapped up a year-long research project for the Harwood Institute where I studied these informal networks at some depth. I looked at citizen groups in four communities across the country to learn how they come into being, the nature of their conversations, how they change and evolve over time, and the outcomes, both tangible and intangible, of their activities.

What I learned was both heartening and humbling — heartening because I found that informal circles can be powerful agents of change, just as Margaret Mead observed, and humbling because the dynamics of small groups challenge our conventional way of thinking about change.

I found that the purposes of informal groups were usually quite modest — to compare notes, share information, and explore ideas. But when they came together with passion and a sense of common purpose, they were able to do magnificent things.

A crucial finding of the study was that unlike formal organizations, informal networks are not instruments of action, at least not in the traditional sense. They serve a more basic function. They provide spaces for learning, sources of affirmation and support, and contexts for the emergence of new ideas and possibilities for action.

When groups that have been meeting informally are ready to mobilize and take action, they either adopt a formal structure or they take their ideas and plans back into existing organizations to make something happen.

In their efforts to create change, many groups rush too quickly to formalize their activities. While launching a new program or organization can give them an air of legitimacy, access to resources, and other tangible benefits, it can also choke off the innovation and creativity needed to really make a difference.

What people need in order to be effective are informal settings where they can find each other, share ideas, and discover common ground. They need spaces where they can receive support and be acknowledged as public actors. And they need contexts for imagining and acting from an awakened sense of possibility.

The trouble, of course, is there aren’t a lot of venues in public life where people can do that in an open and authentic way. All too often, community processes are organized around issues to be confronted and problems to be solved, not possibilities that can be lived into.

The research suggests that it’s time to engage in a different conversation, one about what we aspire to, what we imagine, and what we can create together. Strategizing about how to make change happen is important, but the conversations have to be rooted in something more basic — the animating purpose of the work.

Informal groups provide settings where people can openly explore that and connect with others who are treading the same path and working toward similar ends.

“Truthfulness, honor, is not something that springs ablaze of itself,” the poet Adrienne Rich once observed. “It has to be created between people.” The same might be said about work carried out on behalf of the common good. The impulse to innovate, to build, and to renew our communities does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be kindled through meaningful interactions and mutual discovery.

Please contact me for more information about the informal networks study or a copy of the report.