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Community and belonging in networks for change

Megan Johnson

Ever wondered why some things always get a good turnout and others don’t, even if they’re both excellent and worthwhile? Perhaps peer network theory has one answer.

photo courtesy of the Nest Collective

I follow the candles as they snake their way through the darkness to a clearing, the smell of woodsmoke fills the air and the warm glow of the fire lights friendly faces. Someone hands me a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup and we clamber to the top of the hay bales. The hubbub is hushed and everyone huddles in as a West African folk duo begin.

Thoughts from my working day linger and I find myself wondering if anyone else recognises elements of network building going on here. My friend curating these events certainly seems to act as a network weaver would. After the first set, I ask him what he thinks, “I’ve not really thought of it as a network or community before, it’s about deep listening. Most gigs are talked over, you can’t hear and half the people aren’t paying any attention. People come here so they can listen”. Intrigued by his answer, I ask the woman who owns the woodland for her view “I don’t know if I’d call it a network… maybe I’d say community but the important thing is sharing what we’ve got here – for others to enjoy the magic of the woodland.” I feel a great sense of belonging here so I’m surprised they don’t see their efforts could be creating a network. Perhaps there’s something missing.  

Identity, purpose & values

When a network is forming, the shared purpose, identity and values which bring people together may only be loosely identifiable and quite varied. Peer network theory teaches us that these are the building blocks of any network. In order to get a better grasp on this, it can be useful to consider who the network is for, what problem it’s working on and what type of collaborative activities it’ll be involved in. Established networks tend to work best when network members and partners have a clear purpose and they decide on this together rather than anyone imposing it, for example a funder or a central figure who happens to connect a lot of people.

Value proposition

Everyone who is part of a network or community is involved for a reason, there’s something that motivates them to contribute and engage with others. As part of the peer network programme, we’ve learnt that this ‘something’ is called the ‘value proposition’ of the network’s business model. As we’ve seen with the woodland music scene, this can be different for different people and a robust network will have more than one.

With any network, some struggle to gain the momentum you’d expect, where others are reliably oversubscribed and well attended. Interestingly, the one in this example is very popular and it’s also off the social media radar. Maybe it’s because people are coming for more than the music, maybe the difference is feeling like you’re part of something. I guess it’s not surprising that there’s a personal and emotional element to peer network theory. It’s got me thinking, have I ever felt motivated to contribute to something that I didn’t genuinely want to belong to? Have you?


Find out more about peer network theory and the work we’re doing on and check out our upcoming events for a chance to get involved.

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