Social Network Analysis at RWJF

    • January 17, 2011

Social Network Analysis (SNA) measures relationships between individuals and groups by mapping these relationships and assessing their patterns. The resulting map provides a unique picture of how network participants are communicating and behaving.

Why are we interested in analyzing social networks? RWJF's impact depends on communicating to important audiences, connecting people, and building fields. Evaluating social networks helps us understand when and how we have an impact.

At the Foundation we're initiating a few new projects on social networking analysis. Two senior staff members at RWJF, Lori Melichar and Debra Joy Pérez provide some insight on SNA and give examples of how they use it within their own projects.

Why did RWJF decide to conduct SNA projects?
RWJF is interested in how social networks can improve both programming and evaluation activities. Social networks are integral to our efforts to generate and share information, and to promote impact. To help us understand the influence of social networks and the role of the Foundation, its staff and its grantees, we need to understand how these networks work; the means and modes of communication within them; and the interactions among them. It’s also important for the Foundation to understand and measure the less-tangible consequences of supporting people and the spread of their ideas. An example of this is the impact that grants to individuals have on their home organizations, colleagues in their fields of work and other related fields.

What SNA projects has the Foundation funded?
The Foundation has funded six evaluations that have employed SNA techniques. Two Foundation leadership programs—the Ladders to Leadership program and The State Health Leadership Initiative—examined ways in which professional networks offer real value through shared advice, moral support and learning to enhance leadership competencies of directors of nonprofit organizations serving the most vulnerable in our society. Two other research initiatives—Healthy Eating Research and Public Health Systems and Services Research—counted and characterized new connections that have emerged across disciplinary lines as people tackled new topics requiring them to rely on the expertise of other scholars. Another advocacy program, Consumer Voices for Coverage, examined how statewide advocacy networks of health care consumers enabled them to participate more effectively in health care reform efforts.

Each of these evaluations used SNA in different ways to uncover different information. Some evaluations were conducted by researchers who were external to the program; some were internal evaluations. Some of these evaluations were formative in nature—placing emphasis on gathering information useful for real-time improvement. Some of these evaluations were conducted to provide an external assessment of the programs’ successes and challenges. We believe that there are advantages and disadvantages of these approaches depending on the evaluation questions and types of networks assessed.

What current SNA projects are taking place?
The Initiative on the Future of Nursing (IFN): This program is a two-year effort of the IOM and RWJF to find solutions to the continuing challenges facing the nursing profession, and to build upon nursing-based solutions to improve quality and transform the way Americans receive health care. The Foundation is interested in identifying within the social network associated with the IFN’s implementation committee:
1. Which key organizations are connected to our advisors and which are not?
2. What key nodes/connectors within this group exist so RWJF can take advantage of their strengths?
3. What opportunities are available to make strategic connections between committee members and other key stakeholders?

Public Health Communications Network: SNA will be employed to help understand the public health communications network's scope and the connections among those who are developing and disseminating content online. By identifying key topics, channels (e.g., Web sites and blogs), influencers and relevant trends (e.g., clusters of people/sites, and topics that attract the same group of people or sites), this project will help RWJF understand the relationships in the public health system.

SNA is a new area RWJF is just starting to explore, so as we learn more about its impact and influence, we’ll be sure to share our findings.