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Civil society is at its strongest when people and organisations work towards collective, common goals across systems and networks. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that many advocates and civil society organisations list systems change as a key goal and forming partnerships as an important strategic activity. So, what helps civil society organisations to work well together in networks? 

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers at the Sydney Policy Lab engaged civil society leaders in a series of reflective conversations to understand how Australian civil society could be further strengthened. Time and time again we heard civil society leaders and practitioners speak passionately about the advantages of building strong systems and networks across the sector. 

Working collaboratively in networks can be difficult.  

Based on the insights of civil society leaders across Australia, there are key barriers that are holding for-purpose organisations back from working in a more networked, connected, and collaborative way. These include assuming that one person or group can do it all; unequal power dynamics that go unaddressed; and overly competitive environments and mindsets which can work to undermine trust and relationships across the sector. 

In response to these barriers, Tara Day Williams from Stronger Places Stronger People said it is critical for civil society organisations to reflect on their practice and role within complex systems and networks: 

“Is the ecosystem maintaining the status quo? Is it working to maintain the current power imbalance? Or is it working to shift and to change and to share power and information? It comes back to – are people and groups and organisations interested in a change agenda? Or are they protecting their patch, power, and resources?”  

The report also identified three strategies that could improve the strength of networks and help civil society’s ability to realise systemic change: 

1. Prioritising relationships 

Working and collaborating with others takes time. Unfortunately, modern funding conditions that prioritise short-term quantifiable projects or interventions mean that building relationships can often become secondary to core business. However, our research demonstrated that, during the pandemic, where strong relationships existed between and organisations, these were harnessed to form a strong supporting mesh which worked to prevent communities from falling through the cracks. 

2. Building cultures of learning 

The ability of people and organisations within a network to learn and adapt effectively to changing circumstances is crucial to a network’s success. As systems scientist Peter Senge described, learning is ‘the currency of survival in an era of constant change.’ In practice, a culture of learning not only allows for an easy flow of information but brings about opportunities for that information to be discussed and disseminated in a way that encourages action around shared goals. 

3. Working through intermediaries 

A core aspect of any system is the connection points between people and organisations. These include mediators, facilitators, community centres and network hubs. The role of the intermediary is to keep connections together and to help repair bonds that have been severed. Intermediaries can also take an important systems functions like guiding participants towards a collective vision, holding partners accountable and helping define actions to move forward. 

To read more about what we learned, you can download the full report here, or just the section on systems and networks here. 

The Sydney Policy Lab’s Strengthening Australian Civil Society project is a strategic partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation. It aims to build a stronger and reenergised Australian civil society, by creating opportunities for civil society leaders to reflect on their practice, and then sharing these insights and stories with others.  

Three ways you can engage with our work on systems and networks and other areas of civil society capability:  

  1. Invite us to come and chat to your team or group about how these ideas relate to what you’re trying to do.  
  2. Get in touch with us via email and let us know what you think.  
  3. Share this page or the report with people you think might be interested.  



Amy Tong

Amy Tong

Amy is a research assistant at the Sydney Policy Lab.