Harnessing the Power of Weak Links in Social Impact Work

Published by on May 30, 2024

The attrition rate keeps rising.

According to the recent Social Impact Sector Retention report as many as 74.2% of social impact workers are on the hunt for “something better”.

Nonprofit professionals continuing to hop from job to job, *hoping* that the next place they land will have the support (both from leadership and peers) that they crave to sustain them in this work.

And yes, we deserve that support. The social impact sector needs an overhaul from the inside out

But when we talk about support in nonprofit work are we missing an underrated aspect of networking that deserves more attention??

Have you ever heard of the concept of weak links? 

The “Weak Ties” Theory

The “Weak Ties Theory” was first introduced back in the 70s by Mark Granovetter. At its core Mark argued that:

“While strong ties (i.e., close relationships with friends and family) are important for emotional support, weak ties (i.e., more distant or casual relationships) are more valuable in terms of providing access to new information and opportunities.”

The weak tie theory suggests that our closest connections—those we interact with frequently and share a lot in common with—are often quite similar to us. These strong ties are great for support and shared understanding but they don’t usually introduce us to new ideas or perspectives because we all swim in the same informational waters.

AspectStrong TiesWeak Ties
Frequency of InteractionHighLow
Emotional SupportHighLow
Access to Diverse InformationLowHigh
Innovation and New ideasLowHigh
Network ResilienceMediumHigh
Job OpportunitiesMediumHIgh

For those of us in social impact work, this can mean we’re often surrounded by like-minded individuals who share our passion and commitment but might not push us out of our comfort zones.

On the flip side, weak ties are those less frequent, more casual connections. These folks move in different circles, have access to different networks, and therefore, bring fresh, diverse insights. Imagine connecting with someone who works in a different sector or even in a different part of the world; they can introduce you to innovative approaches and solutions that you might not encounter within your usual circles.

These weak ties can be incredibly valuable, especially when you’re looking to collaborate on new initiatives, find fresh funding opportunities, or bring innovative solutions to the communities you serve.

The lack of Internal Support in Nonprofit Workplaces

Nonprofit organizations often struggle with providing adequate internal support for employees. From leadership down to limited budgets, high turnover rates, and the pressure to do more with less can leave employees feeling isolated. I wrote awhile back about the lack of psychological safety in nonprofit work – and truly I hear that resonated frequently in Hive Chats as our members feel comfortable in the company of relative strangers to share about their work struggles.

Complimenting my qualitative findings is SISR stats like “58% of respondents planned to leave due to lack of supports” or “Almost two-thirds (65%) of staff losses in nonprofit organizations were due to “quits” as compared to fewer than half (48%) for-profit organizations. ” from Pillar Nonprofit. Philanthropic organizations with their low overhead, staff shortages and limited personal development are NOT set up well to support staff as they work to create impact.


The Hidden Superpower of Weak Links

As you can see from the diagram above, weak links, those relationships that sit on the edge of the Communities or Organizations you are already a part of can be a catalyst for fresh perspectives, collaborations and innovations.  

Whether you are in marketing, fundraising, leadership or programs, we all need to have those “breath of fresh air” conversations that prevent our nonproft work from becoming an echo chamber of ideas and trends.

On a more personal level, these weak link connections provide us with cheerleaders – people who may not require the same level of close relationship that comes with obligations and continued maintenance. Instead these relationships can truly just exist in a time/place/space that can fade in and out without the same concerns of hurt feelings or absentee costs.

This isn’t your connection with your workplace bestie (although weak links can and do evolve in to something more).

This is instead a connection to a person who opens you up to a whole new world of possibility and opportunity.

Leveraging Weak Links: Practical Strategies

Identifying and cultivating weak links can be a game-changer. Here are some practical steps you can take to make the most of these valuable connections:

Attend Industry Conferences:

  1. Dive into conferences and seminars that matter to your field. These events are goldmines for meeting new people and expanding your network beyond the usual suspects.

Join Professional Groups:

  1. Get involved with professional associations and groups. Engaging with these communities can connect you with folks outside your usual circles who bring fresh perspectives.

Engage in Online Forums:

  1. Jump into discussions in online forums and groups related to your work. LinkedIn is a fantastic place to start, offering a platform to connect with professionals around the world.

Reach Out on LinkedIn:

  1. Use LinkedIn to find and connect with people who can offer different viewpoints. Keep your profile up-to-date and share content regularly to stay on the radar and keep your network buzzing.

Utilize The Nonprofit Hive:

  1. Join communities like The Nonprofit Hive to connect with other nonprofit pros. Our platform is all about fostering connections and sharing resources, making it easier to find support and innovative ideas.

Periodically Reconnect with Acquaintances:

  1. Don’t let your relationships gather dust. Reach out to acquaintances every now and then. A quick message or a coffee catch-up can keep the connection strong and open doors to new opportunities.

Be Open to New Connections:

  1. Say yes to meeting new people. Whether it’s a casual chat at an event or an introduction through a mutual contact, being open to new connections can lead to unexpected and exciting opportunities.

Success Stories on the power of Weak Links in The Nonprofit Hive

The Nonprofit Hive, where we match nonprofit professionals in 1-1 weekly video chats, has been an experiment on the power of weak link right from day 1.

What would happen if we took individuals who work in social impact (marketing/fundrasing/leadership/consultants and more) and gave them the opportunity to share, complain, collaborate and more??

Well some truly incredible things have happened in our first year of existence. Including but not limited to:

  1. A group of African founders have begun to meet regularly on zoom and support each other in their diverse work with youth, women and local initiatives
  2. A subset of that group of founders recently created a coalition to support children across Africa and I are joining forces on marketing and socials to get the word out there.
  3. Consultants have collaborated and pitched together on projects
  4. One of our members had a chat this past October – which then turned in to a small project with a budding nonprofit. She recently was named CEO of that same organization!!

A “Weak Links” Call to Action

The power of weak links, in social impact sector and just in life, cannot be overstated. As nonprofit professionals, we’re often entrenched in environments where our close-knit teams and familiar networks provide much-needed emotional support but may limit our exposure to fresh perspectives and innovative ideas. This can leave us feeling isolated and stagnant, especially in organizations that struggle to provide adequate internal support.

By actively cultivating weak links, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities.

These casual connections, found at industry conferences, through professional groups, online forums, and platforms like LinkedIn and The Nonprofit Hive, bring invaluable diversity of thought and access to new opportunities. They are the breath of fresh air that prevents our work from becoming an echo chamber.

In our sector, where the demand for innovative solutions and fresh funding opportunities is constant, weak links serve as bridges to new worlds. They offer insights and resources that can transform our approach to social impact work. More importantly, they provide a network of cheerleaders who, while not deeply embedded in our daily lives, are ready to offer support and open doors when we need them most.

So, let’s embrace the hidden superpower of weak links. Let’s step out of our comfort zones, reach beyond our immediate circles, and build a more connected, resilient, and innovative nonprofit community. By doing so, we not only enhance our own professional growth but also drive the broader social change we are all committed to achieving.

Remember, the next great idea, opportunity, or collaborator might just be a weak link away.

Haven’t joined The Nonprofit Hive yet? You are missing out! Join today 🐝

Tasha Van Vlack is the co-founder of The Nonprofit Hive. Her happy place is building community, talking nonprofit work/marketing/parenting and meeting new people,
Being a cheerleader for nonprofiteers is where Tasha has found her niche – she hopes that by providing a space for connection, nonprofit work will become more collaborative and supportive.

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