Tag Archives: networks

Millennium Scholarship Foundation: A Case Study in Sustaining a Network

For those who haven’t heard, one of the worst decisions of the current government has been to not renew the Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

The foundation, created by Chretien in 2000 had a 10 years of funding to pursue three goals: 1) improve access to post-secondary education, particularly for students facing economic or social barriers; 2) encourage a high level of student achievement and engagement in Canadian society; and 3) to build a national alliance of organizations and individuals around a shared post-secondary agenda.

After 10 years of dispensing scholarships and bursaries there is now a large alumni group of Millennium scholars, many of whom have met one another as a result of an annual conference the foundation which brought scholars from across the country together to learn from external speakers and one another. In short, the Millennium alumni network is a relatively vibrant community composed of some very compelling people.

But now the organization that created that community is ending. So one question the foundation has been asking itself is: how does the community continue to have impact once both its funding has stopped and the alumni network ceases to grow? This is a challenge common to many groups. For example, I’ve frequently heard conference organizers ask how can the participants can continue to grow and learn from one another once the conference ends. In theory, new social networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook should make this easier. In practise, it is not always the case.

As I look at Millennium and reflect on its strengths, its community and the tools it has available, a couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, neither overestimate nor underestimate the power of one’s brand.

Firstly, in relation to not underestimating the power of brands, try to think about what it is that your brand has enabled, and why people might be grateful or interested in it. In the case of Millennium, it has helped make a post-secondary education possible for thousands of people. But it did more than that, it found people who were creative, smart, interesting and passionate about life and their communities. It also brought them together to meet and engage one another. If its alumni network did nothing more than serve as brand that allowed people to connect to on another over the next 40 years that would be in of itself a powerful outcome. It may sound trite but in my own life I’m always willing to meet with someone who participated in either Action Canada or Canada25 (two other discontinued program with a fixed alumni group). Both those groups consisted of people who I know want to make the world a better place, and if I can help them, I’ll try. Same with the Sauve Scholars. The fact that I can call on people in these networks and ask for their help, thoughts or advice is one of the most important legacies of these projects.

On the overestimate side, people should recognize that just because it is easy for people to connect, doesn’t mean that they will. Getting a broad network of people to sustain action on a given subject matter (especially if that subject matter didn’t bring them together in the first place) is very, very, difficult. In the case of the Millennium Foundation, it could encourage its network of alumni to tackle global poverty. This is a laudable goal, but it is not the issue that initially brought the group together so attachment to this issue is likely to be highly varied. This is a group with diverse interests. Some may want to focus on technology start-up, others on the environment, others on surviving grad-school. Trying to shoehorn a large group into a single goal is hard, especially if the group make up is now fixed and can no longer grow/evolve to focus on it. A powerful and/or well regarded brand does not mean you can do anything.

My hope is that the alumni are trying to figure out what it is that they, as a  group, do have in common. In the case of Millennium, my sense is that one thing everybody in the network can agree on is that education is important. The very fact that they are Millennium Alumni means they have benefited from access to high quality education. So if the network was, from time to time, going to focus its energy, something related to this issue area might have the greatest resonance. Activities, actions or an annual event that attempted to do something simple around promoting education might be a good place to start. This could sustain the network’s relevance in the lives of its alumni as well as maintain connectivity among a certain percentage of its members. I’d also argue that the country could stand to have a 5000+ army of smart, engaged, interesting and increasingly powerful people who continuously champion the importance of education.

The most important election lesson – networks

So much has happened and, so little has changed. As Kinsella put it best before heading to the night, no one is happy. For me, I’m most saddened to see my friend Omar Alghabra lose, he’s smart, friendly, a great representative and an asset to Canadians – whether they voted for him or not. His loss is a loss for all of us.

So what lessons should the parties draw from last night – and in particularly the election’s biggest losers, the liberals?

Probably the most important lessons is both the strengths and limits of network effects in politics.

The Conservatives is by far one of the most networked parties for Canada’s political environment. Why is this? Because of their roots as the Reform party. Because they started from nothing – and were even feared by larger corporate funders who saw them as too radical – they developed and have come to rely on fund raising through individuals. This has two consequences. First, to fund raise successfully in this manner they must be keenly aware of what their network of individual donors think, so they are constantly in tune with their supporters listening to them and engaging them. Second, by relying on a network of grassroots contributors they have never relied on large corporate donors. Thus, when Chretien passed campaign finance reform and essentially eliminated institutional donations (from unions and corporations) he created an election fund raising ecosystem in which the conservative model was well positioned to thrive.

However, while their network enables Conservatives to raise money, it creates limits. Specifically, because the Conservatives are financially dependent on their core supporters they are constrained by how much they can moderate their message to expand their political support. The broader their appeal the harder it is to raise money from their base.

This is the Conservative dilemma. (It is also one shared by the Greens and the Bloc.)

In contrast the Liberals have almost the opposite problem. Over the past few decades liberals have become addicted to the easy money of a few wealthy individuals and large corporations. Rather then decentralized and networked, fund raising has been highly centralized – almost divorced from individuals. Unfortunately, the party has been slow to adapt since Chretien shut off this intravenous drip. Specifically, two interrelated  problems plague the party. 1) It is still wrestling to figuring out what infrastructure is needed to fund raise in this new individual donor-centric environment, and more problematically 2) to grasp that rethinking infrastructure alone is insufficient. Individual-centric fund raising will rethinking both the structure of the party and its relationship with individual members. Until the implications of individual-centric fund raising have been understood, fund raising – and thus effective campaigns – will remain a difficult endeavor.

But probably the party facing the biggest challenge – long term – is the NDP, the one party that can ignore networks and continue to survive. This is largely because the unions – which can no longer donate as much money as they once could – can still deliver boots on the ground to help out. In short the NDP is one party that need not cultivate a network in order to survive. This dependency means it will likely not put in place the infrastructure to enable organic growth. Consequently, growth will require an exogenous event, namely a Liberal collapse – something that while theoretically possible – is hard to imagine. As such, the NDP will continue to sit influence the debate indirectly, a role that satisfies some of its members while infuriating others.