Photo Credit: Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash.

By Miriam Hacker, Ph.D

Senior Implementation Lead

The Water Center at Penn

May 4, 2022

Four years in the making, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Water Network (SW PA Water Network) is finding its way into a new phase, a transition to local hosting with autonomy. Back in 2018, the network was just a thought, passing through conversation and brainstorming workshops, evolving into its current form: a coalition of over 180 individuals passionate about seeing transformational change in the region’s management of water resources and infrastructure. 

What it means to be ‘hosted with autonomy’

Taking a network approach is uniquely different from an organizational approach in how decisions are made. The strength of a network is in its connections and trust, along with co-creation of its vision and direction, in contrast to an organization which might take a more controlled and hierarchical approach. The SW PA Water Network has created a space where ideas and platforms can be tested amongst members to gauge energy for areas of interest. Those members make up the Strategic Working Group, Another key aspect is the encouragement of sharing information rather than creating proprietary access. 

As such, the Strategic Working Group sought a hosting arrangement that allows for structure to employ a local Strategic Network Coordinator and part-time administrative support. This would create autonomy for the Network to continue in its flexible governance arrangement. 

The host organization…

  • Functions as the official employer for the Strategic Network Coordinator
  • Provides operational support in coordinating network activities, such as website hosting
  • Provides indirect support for securing ongoing funding to cover costs for maintaining the network operations; ex: working with the Coordinator and Strategic Working Group to identify relationships with funding entities

Decisions in the SW PA Water Network are made through consensus of members and the Strategic Network; the host is not responsible for overseeing network activities or the Strategic Network Coordinator. Rather, the host encourages creative freedom for the network to represent itself in communications materials, with space for guidance and collaboration/knowledge transfer as it pursues its vision, purpose and goals. 

Who will help facilitate this transition?

Up to this point, the Water Center at Penn has operated as a neutral facilitator, connecting individuals and providing support as local stakeholders make key decisions for the Network’s future. This involvement was intended to be supportive and temporary and was done in partnership with the Institute for Conservation Leadership and Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Recently, the Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education, and Outreach at the University of Pittsburgh was chosen to officially host the SW PA Water Network, serving as the official employer for the incoming Strategic Network Coordinator. Funding has generously been given by the Heinz Endowments, to be administered through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. The Water Center at Penn will continue supporting the Network through the summer to ensure a successful transition to this new hosting arrangement.

What does this mean for the future of the SW PA Water Network?

The last few years have focused introspectively on what challenges and strategic opportunities exist in the Southwestern PA region and building the foundation for the Water Network. This transitional period marks a shift for the network to generate joint collaborations in the region, leveraging existing efforts and strengthening partnerships for improved water management. Building a network is an ongoing process that evolves based on member interest, capacity, and continued trust through partnership. For individuals looking to stay engaged, we encourage you to join the conversation on the Basecamp platform.