State Policy Network
The Network effect: Why networks matter in driving change

By Michael J. Reitz, executive vice pres­ident of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan

Why do some social movements succeed while others fail?

This simple question motivated author and social change expert Leslie Crutchfield to examine social changes in the United States over the last 40 years: gun rights, anti-smoking efforts, drunk driving laws, and same-sex marriage. She identified six patterns that distinguish successful movements, where the changes that occurred were intentional, not accidental. A key driver, she discovered, is the power of networks:

 “These changes occurred because of the relentless advocacy of vast networks of individuals and organizations, campaigning in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and often against entrenched, powerful opponents.” (How Change Happens, pg. 5).

In his prescient 2013 book, Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst and specialist in the relationship of politics and global media, says networks are simply “friends of friends.” (The Revolt of the Public, pg. 301). Networks can exist in the connectivity between leaders and organizations that have shared missions and goals, as well as among the grassroots communities that bolster a cause. Networks are distinguished by the many-to-many, not a top-down hyperarchy. Often, networks are self-organized, and the strongest ones emerge from the voluntary opting in of their participants.

Michael Reitz presenting with a panel of Network executives at
SPN’s 2019 Annual Meeting.

Networks are powerful because of the belonging and trust they foster. They are so influential that marketing expert Seth Godin calls connection the “asset of the future.” When people join networks, there is a sense of comradery in a fight and a trust conferred through a common purpose and the relationships being built around it. If I receive a call from someone at the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania or the Texas Public Policy Foundation, I am happy to connect—even if we have never met. This connection and comradery translate to faster communication and transaction speed, which, over time, can be channeled into real momentum for social change. This is the “network effect,” and thanks to today’s digital connectivity, it can scale even more rapidly. Our own movement features several examples of networks.

The late Thomas Roe envisioned such transformative power when he established State Policy Network. The Mackinac Center ran a biannual Leadership Conference for 13 years, training 600 public policy leaders from 47 states and 47 countries. The Federalist Society assembled a network of conservative and libertarian lawyers, whose influence is now seen in judicial appointments. Illinois Policy Institute cultivated a community of thousands of activists in its Lincoln Lobby Facebook group. The Goldwater Institute inspired multiple state-based public interest litigation centers.

The network effect is responsible for some of the most sub­stantive advancements that have come from organizations in the State Policy Network.

For example, if it weren’t for a multiyear effort to support workers via right-to-work victories in multiple states, we would never have set the stage for the historic Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision (litigated by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and Lib­erty Justice Center) that freed millions of workers from forced unionism.

Today, reforms are spreading across multiple states to lift red tape that prevents people from getting and keep­ing jobs. Organizations like the Goldwater Institute in Arizo­na, Platte Institute in Nebraska, Beacon Center in Tennessee, The Buckeye Institute in Ohio, The James Madison Institute in Florida, and Mississippi Center for Public Policy have created momentum for multistate occupational licensing reform. And just this year, we saw a coalition of healthcare policy experts come together to implement much-needed market-based healthcare reforms in more than 24 states at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

None of our work is possible without another specific, special network: philanthropists and thought leaders who support the freedom movement. Philanthropists and activists dedicat­ed to a cause have significant impact, including contributions to some of the advancements I mention above. Through your network and the power of your philanthropy, you are creating a movement right now that is bringing about greater freedom, opportunity, and security to Americans.

If networks are the asset of the future, how can we seize the opportunities ahead? Four suggestions:

Some causes succeed. Others fail. By understanding the reasons why, we can build a strong movement for lib­erty and human flourishing.

Categories: Best Practices
Organization: State Policy Network