3 things we learnt from the practice of 9 influencing networks

Saskia Veen Influencing

Marieke Meeske and Saskia van Veen share some of the learning from a recently published book by Oxfam Novib called Beating the Drum: Stories of Influencing Networks. The book explores the practical experiences of nine influencing networks around the world and their efforts to influence decision-makers on a variety of issues. Issues include land rights, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The learning in the book highlights the importance of mutually beneficial relationships, or partnerships, between organizations within networks, the creation of a shared narrative and shared objectives and capacity development for effective network influencing. However, the book also illustrates, in line with Oxfam’s own influencing experience, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to influencing. This is especially true given the heterogeneity of the networks’ influencing targets and the complexity of their policy asks.

Network diversity and effectiveness

The learning highlights how much network members have to offer to each other, and how their influencing efforts are more effective when there is diversity within the network, especially when targeting national decision-makers.

Diversity among network members results in mutually beneficial relationships. This enables the development of skills and know-how of the individual organizations as they learn from each others’ strengths and ways of working. Such relationships also facilitate synergies and complementarity, so the strength of one group offsets possible weaknesses in others. Diversity of membership also brings a wider range of expertise into the network and enhances the credibility and leverage of the network in the eyes of target decision-makers.

Additionally, the legitimacy of a network, and hence its influence, increases when it represents a broad group of constituencies. This is highlighted by the case of Wemos, a network influencing the Global Financing Facility (supported by the World Bank). They aim to strengthen health systems to advance universal health coverage.

In this network CSO members at different levels unite, ranging from international CSOs with legitimacy to influence the international branches of the World Bank, National CSOs with legitimacy to influence national decision-makers, and local CSOs with legitimacy to speak on behalf of communities benefiting from health facilities.

Diverse networks seem to consciously seek a balance of members working at national, regional and local levels. This mix achieves a broad geographical spread and therefore also creates public support for the network.

A shared narrative and related resources

Across all nine case stories, there is a common thread. Having a shared ambition and narrative is the glue that binds influencing networks together and is important for success. This aids success and facilitates the commitment of members to support each other in good and bad times.

Yet, defining and maintaining a shared narrative and common set of objectives is not a one-off exercise. It requires a continuous process of discussions, debates and consensus, building among the network members, underpinned by evidence. Once defined they must be accompanied by concrete policy demands if they are to have an impact.

The ability of network members to accept and respect each other’s differences was also found to be key for effective functioning. For instance, in the case of AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection, several members opposed the existence of zoos, while others, including AAP, work with zoos in their programmes. Yet these differences were overcome with a shared purpose on a positive list of pets in the European Union.

Strong, inclusive leadership that represents the diversity of the network is therefore essential. Focused internal and external communication, as well as careful negotiations and independent branding, can also help an influencing network to overcome challenges related to coherence in its narrative.

In practice, the ability of a network to define shared, concrete policy demands is often linked to the existence of windows of opportunity in the policy-making arena. These windows of opportunity can raise or lower the salience of a specific issue and put pressure on members to agree and present their policy demands when opportunities arise.

Developing capacity within the network

Learning and capacity development of members within influencing networks is important for success. It can take different forms and may happen either in a deliberate, ad hoc or organic manner.

 In some of the networks, capacity development is an integral and purposeful part of the functioning of the network. For instance, larger CSOs in the National Alliance of Humanitarian Actors in Bangladesh (NAHAB) build the capacity of local CSOs to deliver a localized humanitarian response, e.g. utilizing technical training. In other networks, capacity development of members takes place through learning on the job in a relatively ad hoc manner. In cases like this, capacity development is a by-product of the collaboration process.

A diverse membership adds value in terms of learning as organisations with complementary know-how and skills can learn from each other. This added value also goes beyond a single network. Multiple networks around the same theme also learn from each other, highlighted by the cases that are part of the Get Up Speak Out (GUSO) programme. The GUSO programme strengthens the capacity of SRHR influencing networks in Malawi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Indonesia, Pakistan and Uganda. The programme emphasizes the importance of cross-learning between these networks to strengthen capacities.

Next steps

In November 2020 Oxfam Novib will organize a series of webinars to make a deep dive into some of the topics discussed in the book. Want to connect or stay informed? Please send an email to win.learning@oxfamnovib.nl.

Download and read Beating the Drum: Stories of influencing networks


Saskia Veen


Marieke Meeske

Marieke Meeske is an Impact Measurement and Knowledge specialist focused on quantitative research methods. She is part of the Learning, Innovation, and Knowledge unit at Oxfam Novib