From Play-Doh to Building Blocks: Supporting a Growing Network

From Play-Doh to Building Blocks: Supporting a Growing Network

Over the last three years, the number of chapters in the YNPN network has grown by 60 percent. This exponential growth at a time when most membership organizations are in decline tells us that there's something special about YNPN. As we work to support this incredible growth, our National Director Trish Tchume did some thinking about what exactly makes YNPN so unique.

Last year as part of a grant proposal, I was put in the position of having to put into words for the first time not only what made YNPN unique in general, but specifically what made YNPN different from other membership associations.  I knew what it was.  When you talked to our chapters leaders, they knew what it was.  But putting it into words was still difficult.

After a few days of mulling it over, I finally found the words to capture the essence of what makes our network unique:

Unlike the traditional “association” model where bringing a chapter to your community is essentially like opening a franchise that would look and operate the same whether it was in Boston or Little Rock, YNPN is an intentionally creative space for developing and connecting the next generation of social change leaders. We like to think of our network-building model as the equivalent of offering a pile of blocks, a lump of Playdoh, pipecleaners, and pickup sticks to the most expansive, young minds in the country.

Then we leave them with the very basic instructions that they should build something with it that awakens a diverse cross-section of young people to their potential to create change in their communities, provides them with the skills and experiences they need to meet that potential, and allows them to build connections across differences.

I remember feeling so satisfied after writing that last paragraph, like I’d actually figured out a way to communicate to the rest of the world what all of us involved in the network knew.  It was magic.


Magic felt like this.

YNPN doesn’t work in spite of our open structure, it works because of our open structure.

We had named the secret sauce and it was good.  But the self-satisfaction wore off pretty quickly after that because a looming question remained:

So how do you harness the power of something so open without killing it?

This is the struggle that has plagued YNPN almost since the earliest days of its national charter 10 years ago. I’ll be the first to admit, we’ve gotten the answer to this question wrong a few times. There was the brief period in the mid to late 2000s when we thought 30-page legal agreements were the way to build cohesion.  Or the time we thought a really expensive, super-technical online membership platform would bring us all together.  And of course there’s the decade-old belief that the only way for us to do anything as a network was if we had a shared 501(c)(3).

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Although we were a forward-facing, intentionally creative space in all other ways, our first instinct was to adopt familiar structures instead of seeking out new models that might better fit our organizational culture.

So what did we decide to do? You’ll have to wait for Part 2 of this blog post to find out.

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