Collaborate across complexity for a better shared future

Connect, Align, Collaborate. 

The Irvine New Leadership Network brings together diverse leaders in California’s Central Valley — across issues, sectors, generations, and ethnicities — to learn, build relationships and collaborate for a better shared future. 


Social change today is happening amidst extreme volatility. Many of our problems are scaling faster than solutions, and our institutions seem stuck in a by-gone era. In this environment, it’s no surprise that leaders across all sectors are facing intense pressure to have more impact, faster, with fewer resources. 

They are being asked to function at multiple levels: to run high-impact organizations; to serve increasingly diverse constituencies; and to coordinate resources and partnerships across entire systems. And yet, support for these leaders to build these new capacities is rare, especially in under-resourced areas. 

In 2012, The James Irvine Foundation began to explore how best to support emerging leaders in the San Joaquin Valley of CA. As a result of its findings, the Foundation hired a facilitation team to design and launch the Irvine New Leadership Network in Fresno, CA in 2013. Several years later, in 2016, a similar process was replicated in Stanislaus County. 

The Irvine New Leadership Network (NLN) provides leaders with the mindsets, skills and networks they need to collaborate and co-create a better future for their communities. 

Why these Central Valley Regions

The Fresno and Stanislaus County regions were selected because of the challenges their communities face, and because of the characteristics their communities exhibit:

Both communities had emerging leaders doing exceptional work, but they were not well connected, and were working in issue and sector silos.

Emerging and more established leaders in power were not well connected. And new leaders, especially those from diverse backgrounds, face more roadblocks. 

People both inside and outside the Central Valley sensed that it is at a tipping point. Both communities exhibited an optimism and energy around creating positive change. 


The goal of the New Leadership Network is to create a network of connected civic leaders who can help drive significant community change. Unlike more traditional leadership programs, the focus goes beyond building individual skills; it focuses equally on building the collective ability to collaborate around complex issues. 

We believe an intentionally diverse network in a physical place (Fresno and Stanislaus Counties), creates the proximity necessary to build trust and work across boundaries on shared goals. After a competitive selection process, cohorts of 15-18 leaders commit to an intensive 9-day program, meeting three times over six months. These cohorts are then woven together to create one larger local network. That network continues to receive financial and staffing support beyond the initial training in order to embed relationships and projects in the community. 

There is currently a network of over 45 leaders in the city of Fresno, CA and a network of 59 leaders in Stanislaus County. The arc of learning focuses on building the leader’s awareness of who they are as a leader, the relationships they need to create greater change, and the larger systems in which they operate. The curriculum knits together components of systems thinking, network theory, human centered design, equity, and coaching, as key tools leaders need to design and support greater collaboration. 

The Impact.

The impact of The New Leadership Network is tracked and measured across three primary outcomes:

Our evaluation shows that leaders emerge from the NLN with a greater sense of their own leadership, more confident in their ability to navigate complexity, and more comfortable working with people who are dissimilar from themselves.

For leaders tackling complex community-wide challenges, having a diverse support group is essential. Our early evaluation results point to leaders leveraging their expanded network to achieve more together than they could alone.

Over 75 significant projects emerged in the first two years of the NLN Fresno network, building upon the foundation of the deep understanding and strong relationships. In Stanislaus County, multiple design teams continue to iterate on emerging innovations.

Discover More About the NLN.

Our goal is to learn out loud. Check out what’s been written about the work of the NLN in the press. And stay tuned for more lessons learned in the form of a workbook out this Spring, 2019. 


Written by NLN founder Heather McLeod Grant, this case study highlights the Irvine Foundation’s groundbreaking work in Fresno at the beginning of the New Leadership Network. Filled with the voices and perspectives of the leaders from the network, this is a must read for those hoping to inspire collective action. 


This article appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review to highlight lessons learned after three years of the New Leadership Network’s work in Fresno County. The article highlights the changes made to the network strategy for Stanislaus County. 

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