This article comes from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s spring 2018 edition, “Dynamics and Domains: Networked Governance in Civic Space.”

About a dozen years ago, a number of our colleagues around the United States and beyond began to examine the early manifestations of a unique and (sort of) new kind of governance: networked governance. These explorations opened our eyes to some intriguing new ways to understand the process of governance in our organizations and communities. Since then, much has been done in both the practice and academic worlds to learn more about this approach and form of governance and explore what it might mean for our organizations, communities, and constituents. So it is exciting to see this edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly focus on networked governance and how we continue to make sense of and understand this fascinating phenomenon.

My own exploration culminated in one of the early articles on the topic of networked governance—“Reframing Governance.”1 In that article, I asserted that governance is not about structures such as boards, per se—it is about a pivotal function and form of leadership. (My definition of governance was and is that it is the process of decision making, including setting mission, strategic direction, and priorities; developing and allocating resources; adopting and applying rules of interunit engagement and relationships; and implementing an ongoing system of quality assurance.) At that time, I observed that our understanding of conventional governance was less rich than we needed and, more significantly, that many communities actually had been developing new levels of governance most of us had overlooked.

As I explained in the article, we have created the “new nonprofit governance” at a new level within our communities. But we have not identified this shift, because we’re so focused on the artifact that we know as “the board.” It used to be that boards and governance were substantially the same: the two concepts overlapped. But with time and a radically changing environment (i.e., changes in the complexity, pace, scale, and nature of community problems and needs), the domain of “governance” has moved beyond the domain of “the board.”

Governance and boards have greatly diverged in many of the settings where we address our most complex and demanding community needs. And in these complex environments, boards of individual organizations serve the functions of governance less and less well. In these environs, governance truly is leadership. And in this new generation of governance, which has most actively evolved in segments of the nonprofit sector where agencies strive to address these challenges, nonprofit boards are merely one element and no longer the primary “home” of the governance processes by which we address our most critical community issues.2

Networked governance develops as an integral element of the strategies people and communities create as they organize and mobilize to address the dynamic needs and wicked problems that challenge them. Given the need for these governance approaches to reflect and appropriately address the specific conditions that cause networked governance to develop, our discussions about it are of necessity quite varied and diverse. Each individual network must emerge organically in response to the conditions of its host community, and the governance system that emerges in each case can be effective only to the degree that it is aligned well with the community it is intended to serve.

One of the intriguing things about networked governance and our efforts to understand and effectively implement it is that it is so multidimensional and complex. I have been very impressed to see that the amount of research and writing on networked governance—coming from a diverse mix of researchers, community leaders, consultants, and practitioners—has grown exponentially in the past decade. While the variation among initiatives that exhibit some or all of the characteristics of networked governance can be mind boggling, the breadth and scope of the work is truly exciting to consider.

Some of the work has continued to focus on governance in and around conventional organizations and how their practice of governance (involving boards but actively engaging others as well) has continued to adapt to the changing needs and expectations of constituents, stakeholders, and communities. Other work has focused on governance and leadership in and for less permanent types of entities, such as advocacy and other social movements that work for policy and social change in communities. Still other work has explored the dynamics of governance in multiorganizational initiatives that form to address seemingly intractable wicked problems and challenges in our communities. Further, we have begun to learn about some very interesting work regarding how networked governance is developing in other nations and in various international networks.

The work is impressive, important, and growing in impact. And all of this has significance for nonprofit leaders in the United States and beyond as they continue to tackle the most important of these challenges.

As we work to understand and improve our practice of networked governance, we find it both interesting and challenging to recognize that there are so many ways to perceive and understand it. And as researchers of different disciplines home in on particular aspects of the phenomenon, each offers his or her own distinct contribution and perspective on specific facets of it. Sociologists, for example, will tend to focus on the institutional structures and processes that are integral to its development and practice and how they emerge and evolve, whereas anthropologists are more likely to look at the cultural dimensions and characteristics that relate to its emergence, development, and impact. Political scientists will tend to focus on the decision and policy systems and regimes by which actors are organized and decisions get made, including, especially, who has power, who gets to participate, and how they do so. Alternatively, social psychologists are likely to focus more on the behaviors and dynamics of individuals and people in groups and how they engage and interact as they work together (or do not).

Among the more elaborate and complicated of networks whose governance dynamics have been examined, especially by nonprofit and public administration researchers, are those whose constituent organizations and actors come together from multiple sectors to address complex and wicked community challenges. These often reflect efforts to organize and integrate the work of nonprofits, government agencies, and sometimes even for-profit businesses. Among the earliest work in this field was a set of studies by Keith Provan, Patrick Kenis, and H. Brinton Milward.3 From their work, the authors determined that there are three typical approaches to the implementation of networked governance: governance by participants, governance by a lead organization, and governance by a network administration organization. Each approach is likely to align with certain conditions of the network and its members. Provan, Kenis, and Milward also found that there are four key factors that will fundamentally influence the form of governance employed for a network: the level of trust among members, the number of participants engaged in the network, the degree of consensus among the members about the goals of the network, and the network’s need for unique network-level competencies to function. Their work has served as an important foundation for the network research of many subsequent public administration researchers.

Building on the early networked governance research of public administration scholars, John Bryson, Barbara Crosby, and Melissa Stone have prepared some of the most extensive recent work on networked governance in public service settings through their extensive review and synthesis of the literature of the field.4 The research they examine has focused on networks that are designed to share power more broadly and be relatively inclusive of the range of the relevant stakeholders and constituents needed to address complex community problems. While they use words such as collaboration and coproduction to describe increased involvement of constituents and stakeholders in the work of governmental entities, they too discuss what it takes to be effective in network governance when it focuses on organizing and leading extensive community-serving initiatives and organizations. They have synthesized the results of multiple studies to highlight the factors and governance approaches that are most likely to work well and enhance the potential for such complicated networks to work.

They explain that, among the dimensions that are likely to have the greatest impact on network effectiveness, one of the most important is the formal and informal structure for governance of the collaboration. Further, they explain that five key design tensions will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the network’s approach to governance. They are:

  1. The need for inclusion versus the need for efficiency
  2. The need to be adaptive versus the need to maintain stability in structure and process
  3. The challenge of having legitimacy with those in the network versus legitimacy with those outside the network who have potential to affect success (e.g., resource providers)
  4. Clarity about membership versus ambiguity about who gets to be in or out (and why)
  5. Inevitability of imbalances in power among members and the need to address them

Bryson, Crosby, and Stone also offer two additional insights about networked governance in their synthesis:

  1. It is important to use inclusive processes to develop inclusive structures, which in turn will (and will need to) sustain inclusive processes.
  2. It is important to adopt flexible governance structures that can adjust to requirements that will change throughout the life cycle of the collaboration.5

These are more than arcane studies; they articulate the insights we need to employ to improve the potential for network success as we strive to include the diverse sets of actors who—and entities that—have a stake in the success of the network and to bring them together to capitalize on the essential assets, perspectives, interests, and capacities they offer. This truly is hard work.

The networked governance articles presented in this edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly reflect several of the variations in focus and scope that I have described. Collectively, they offer a nice cross-section of perspectives and insights from a variety of settings that further enrich our insights into the fascinating domain of networked governance and the potential it has for serving communities, organizations, and those whom they exist to serve.


  1. David Renz, “Reframing Governance,” Nonprofit Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 6–13.
  2. Ibid., 6.
  3. Keith G. Provan and Patrick Kenis, “Modes of Network Governance: Structure, Management, and Effectiveness,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 18, no. 2 (April 2008): 229–52; and H. Brinton Milward et al., “Governance and Collaboration: An Evolutionary Study of Two Mental Health Networks,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 20, Suppl. 1 (January 2010): i125–41.
  4. John M. Bryson, Barbara C. Crosby, and Melissa Middleton Stone, “Designing and Implementing Cross-Sector Collaborations: Needed and Challenging,” Public Administration Review 75, no. 5 (September/October 2015): 647–63.
  5. Ibid.