Network Design: Members’ Needs Come First

Colors for Holi on sale at a market

Each member brings unique skills and perspectives, and has unique goals. Image credit By Kamalakanta777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is part of an occasional series on network design

A network leader challenge is remembering the network isn’t most people’s first priority, and it shouldn’t be. I use these two principles to help me remember, members’ needs come first

Placing members’ interests and needs at the center of your network’s design and your network’s activities gives people a reason to engage. It also helps everyone hold onto the shared purpose. It reminds conveners and support staff to make activities easy to participate in and useful.


Focus on offering people value and communicating how network engagement translates into value. There is a lot of competition for people’s time, so it is critical to make sure that activities are valuable for participants. If they are not, people will choose to invest their time in other places where it is more  helpful. Value can come in many different forms. Here are some common benefits I’ve seen draw members in:

  • Access to expertise or perspectives that save people time doing their work or evaluating possible plans
  • Relationships with potential project partners
  • Ideas for valuable research projects or the ability to recommend a research project to someone with a research budget
  • Partners with time to work on a shared project, making a bigger “volunteer” project possible
  • Allies to achieve a policy or other goal
  • Opportunity to learn new skills, be visible in a position of leadership

The network is the members, so elevate them, follow them, support their needs, cultivate their roles. Look for opportunities in every activity to cultivate leadership in network members and encourage them to take on right-sized leadership roles. Elevate network members in activities, at meetings, in communications to help people learn who else is in the network and to see what they have to offer. Help members take on leadership by letting them know they are needed as leaders, following their leadership, supporting their leadership. Network leadership is not about one person, or about the support staff – it’s about helping each member achieve the most they can achieve, connecting with one another, and doing more together than any individual member could do alone.


I take time to talk with members and ask them what they want to get out of the network. If they’re looking to learn and demonstrate leadership skills, I invite them to co-convene a work group and mentor them through the process. If they’re interested in partners, I offer them introductions. I remind them to tell me what they want to achieve. I share stories with the whole network that highlights where other members have found value, and to elevate those people who are taking advantage of the network.

What do you do to keep members’ needs front and center?