21st-Century Networks

By Sarah J. Butler

Structure and Governance of Branch Networks

There are lots of different types of network: large and small, close-knit and loosely connected. A network’s structure clearly affects the way it operates. When we think about network structures, a good starting point is to look at the formal relationships between parts of a network – who reports to whom, in effect. But just as important is how dependent or independent the parts of a network are from each other. And finally, the way that people work within the branches of a network is also relevant to the way it functions. We look at each of these aspects of structure in turn.

Adirondack and Taylor (2001) identify five main structures adopted by organisations with branch networks. Volunteer branches are likely to fall into one of the first three.

Parent body with non-autonomous projects or branches
The parent body is ultimately responsible for what happens in the projects or branches.

Parent body with a network of autonomous ‘branches’
The branches are more properly called affiliates. Each affiliated body is independent and responsible for itself, but is accountable in some way to the parent.

A federation is made up of independent organisations which join a coordinating or umbrella organisation.

Some voluntary organisations franchise their name and way of operating.

A central organisation controls, generally as subsidiaries, a range of organisations, often providing diverse services but sharing central administrative functions.

Adirondack and Taylor are careful in the labels they apply to the different structures. For example, when they talk about a ‘group structure’ they are not describing organisations with local group networks. Rather, they are describing something more like a commercial group, where separate subsidiary companies are controlled by one central holding company. A charity may have a group structure if it decides, for example, to set up subsidiaries to run a trading arm, or to work in a related area not covered by its objectives.

They also clarify the difference between affiliations and federations:

An affiliation implies a tighter degree of control, where the member organisations are independent, but accept obligations as a condition of affiliation. For example, they might adopt a common model of governing document.

A federation is looser. Its members are completely independent organisations which ‘come together for coordination, mutual support, information and/or training’….

Level of autonomy
Branches may be completely autonomous, but still work closely with the organisation as a whole in order to achieve their common goals. At the other extreme, branches may be completely dependent on a central body, and look to it for all funding, governance and strategy, yet make their own day-to-day operational decisions.

What is important is that branches are either fully independent or fully autonomous, because the resulting structure brings you the clear lines of responsibility and accountability which all organisations need. If your branches are neither independent nor autonomous, but somewhere in between, you may be exposing yourselves to all the
risks associated with unclear governance and lines of accountability.

Volunteering model
Adirondack and Taylor’s descriptions of organisational structures focus on the importance of accountability throughout an organisation. Colin Rochester (1999) takes a different approach. He is more interested in the ways staff and volunteers work together, and what implications their working relationships have for management approaches and governance. He is not specifically looking at local group networks, but his work is none the less useful in highlighting the many different ways in which local groups are organised.

Rochester identifies four volunteering ‘models’:

Service delivery model
Volunteers carry out most operational activities. Their work is organised and managed according to a workplace model: there will be an explicit agreement (like an employment contract) stating work to be done and ‘conditions of service’; formal training is provided; there is a clear set of arrangements for support and supervision; there may be opportunities for ‘promotion’. In terms of governance, there is a clear separation of the management committee and the volunteers.
Support role model
Volunteers support and supplement the work of staff, who carry out the operational activities. Volunteer roles are defined by fact that some roles are for staff only; staff make decisions about tasks to be done. The management approach falls somewhere between that used in the service delivery model and the membership activist and coworker models below, as does the style of governance.

Membership/activist model
All roles are played by volunteers. Roles are negotiated and subject to change. Training is ‘seen in terms of personal development of the individual’; there is no management control or supervision; the group operates on the basis of teamwork and personal leadership. Governance is ambiguous.

Co-worker model
There is no clear difference between the roles and status of volunteers and staff. Otherwise this model has the same features as the membership/activist model. Governance is likewise ambiguous. This is an uncommon model for national organisations’ branches.

Rochester concludes that workplace management techniques are not appropriate in all situations. If your local groups fit the membership/activist model, a looser community development approach is likely to result in a healthier relationship.

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