Client Partner

The James Irvine Foundation

Our Focus

Individual and collective leadership development

Cross-sector network creation

Program design  and implementation

Strength from within: Building a network of leaders empowered for collaborative community impact

Fresno is a city of high contrasts. It sits at the epicenter of a $6.9 billion local agricultural economy, the largest city in a region that grows 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. It is a place of enormous wealth, yet that wealth is highly concentrated and tends to flow to companies outside the San Joaquin Valley, with very little of it used to support a community that so urgently needs the investment. Fresno holds the fifth highest concentrated poverty rate among all US cities and, despite the lush farmland surrounding it, the state’s highest rate of food insecurity. 

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In 2013 The James Irvine Foundation launched a new kind of initiative designed to bring together diverse leaders in Fresno—across issues, sectors, and generations—to learn, build relationships, and collaborate for a better future for their region. What started as an experiment in fostering more networked ways of working quickly became a mechanism for making real progress against longstanding civic issues—making the New Leadership Network a potentially powerful model for how leaders in other cities and communities could organize to solve intractable local problems.

Heather McLeod Grant led a multidisciplinary team to research, design, and facilitate the New Leadership Network, establishing a new model for collaboration and community engagement.

What made the NLN different from many of the networks the team studied during research was the goal to create a systems-level, cross-sector network of leaders capable of going both fast and deep. Fast in the sense that they would be looking for the network to have community impact not at some distant point down the road but almost immediately. And deep in the sense that they would be connecting Fresno’s social change leaders on a personal as well as professional level. 


The network has changed the way that I think and changed certain parts of the core of who I am, and it will forever change the way that I work.

Caty Perez
NLN participant

Less than two years into its existence, the NLN was already having impact in Fresno. By January 2015, the network had launched 86 formal collaborations, which were already producing real outputs through initiatives in improving children’s outcomes, in downtown revitalization, and in establishment of a regional design lab. Smaller, more time-bound projects that the group calls “micro-collaborations” included a kindergarten readiness program, a neighborhood playground built in a partnership between Habitat for Humanity and Kaiser Permanente, and a summer meals and reading program for children in poverty.

Meanwhile the NLN had already had a striking impact on its members—on how they operate as leaders and how they show up in their city and for one another. Nearly all report that being part of the NLN has enhanced their leadership and problem-solving skills, widened their perspective on Fresno, and given them greater optimism about the future of their community and their ability to affect its direction. “The network has changed the way that I think and changed certain parts of the core of who I am,” reports Caty Perez. “And it will forever change the way that I work.”

Building on the successes of the Fresno New Leadership Network, The James Irvine Foundation is preparing to launch a new network initiative in Stanislaus, CA, a valley county facing similar challenges.

Portions excerpted from the case study “Transforming a City and its Future Through Networked Action." Read the full case study here, available from The James Irvine Foundation.