Elvert Barnes from Baltimore, Maryland, USA / CC BY-SA

March 17, 2020; Inside Higher Ed

While COVID-19 has much of the world on lockdown, there is a surge of creativity and innovation rising up to address the real needs of people around the world.

While networks haven’t had the exposure that they deserve in the nonprofit sector, given the complex and changing landscape of today’s coronavirus crisis, they are the perfect solution to address the scale of emergent problems resulting from this crisis. That’s exactly what students throughout the US are discovering as they organize mutual aid networks virtually.

As Lilah Burke of Inside Higher Ed reports, students at Middlebury College began circulating a spreadsheet last week where students could add their needs for money, storage, and free housing. The public list was an opportunity for students who may have limited social support to let their needs be known, and likewise it enables those with resources to step up and support these students. See a need, meet a need. It’s at the core of self-organizing, and it doesn’t take a stuffy meeting with an agenda to see results.

What’s surprising is how rapidly this simple idea has spread and the impact it’s had in such a short time. What started as a public spreadsheet circulated on platforms like Twitter has been replicated across the country. The result of this self-organized, decentralized model is that more than a dozen other campuses around the country now have mutual aid networks to support students in need.

At the University of Virginia, students raised $10,000 in a day through their network organizing efforts, which seeks to meet the needs of low-income students. At other campuses, the impact is even greater. For example, at Wesleyan University, students receiving assistance are limited to first-generation and low-income students, and in one day the network raised $45,000 through a GoFundMe campaign. As of the publishing of this article, that number has exploded to just shy of $200,000.

It’s not surprising the young people are leading the way. Even as many young people are open to pursuing traditional leadership roles, many others are experimenting with emergent leadership, and are driving cultural change in this area, especially in self-organized networks. And, given the complexity of problems today, the importance of new models of leadership cannot be underestimated, as they offer innovative, scalable, and flexible solutions to highly complex problems. As NPQ noted a year ago in its article “Young Leaders as a Self-Organizing Vanguard,” which discusses the key differences between top down models and self-organizing ones:

Self-organizing efforts continually rearrange themselves based on changing needs in the environment, with individual actors experimenting with approaches, processes, ideas, and models of intervention that are localized as exploratory solutions to issues. Leadership is distributed in self-organizing systems, where everyone has the ability to initiate discussions, actions, and conversations based on the needs that they observe.

This approach is so effective, in part, because of its adaptive and flexible nature, which leaves room for everyone to participate. Through increased diversity of actors, self-organized networks garner the insights and ideas of people from a broad range of cultural, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, which effectively makes the activities more relevant.

While the organic, decentralized nature of these efforts is to be applauded, there are lessons to be learned from nonprofits pioneering and advocating for self-organization and network leadership. Take for instance Leadership Learning Community (LLC), a national nonprofit organization transforming the way leadership development work is conceived, conducted and evaluated, primarily within the nonprofit sector. One of the things that LLC focuses on is cultivating and training network leaders, whose skill sets and talents differ drastically from top-down, traditional hierarchal leadership. LLC has developed high quality resources such as Leadership and Networks: New Ways of Developing Leadership in a Highly Connected World and Leading Culture and Systems Change: How to Develop Network Leadership and Support Emerging Networks.

Ultimately for the nonprofit sector at large, the mutual aid networks that students are self-organizing offer insight as to how to address complex problems. In times of crisis, new approaches emerge, and now is the time for savvy nonprofit leaders to take note of things that are working and to assemble local communities of practice to learn from. By doing so, they will push and challenge their thinking about what true collaboration is, what it looks like, and how it can be effective in solving problems. At the same time, they will be better equipped to lead such efforts in their local communities and inspire others to get involved in helping solve problems.—Derrick Rhayn