The Irvine New Leadership Network brings together business, nonprofit, education, government, health, faith and media leaders from the San Joaquin Valley in California to work in the "dynamic space" between sectors - finding common ground and building trust - and then working together on important initiatives in the community.

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The overall goal of this program is to create a meaningful network of well-connected citizen leaders who can help drive significant change in their community. To accomplish this, cohorts of 12-15 leaders immerse themselves in an intensive 9-day program, meeting three times over 6 months. These cohorts are then woven together to create one larger network. There is currently a network of over 45 leaders in the city of Fresno, CA and a new network will be launching in Stanislaus County in 2016.

The first gathering focuses on the community as a whole, using the lens of systems thinking to understand place. The second gathering consists of a Learning Journey to another city, to seed new ideas, introduce design-thinking frameworks, and see other models from an outside perspective. Together these two gatherings focus on “sense-making”, or developing a deep, shared understanding of the challenges and possibilities. The third gathering focuses on “solution-making”, or Shared Problem Solving aimed at collective community impact.


Impact for the network is tracked and measured across four primary outcomes:

  • Individuals become better leaders. Although individual leadership development is not the only focus of the program, it is an outcome. Through authentic dialogue, peer-to-peer learning, training in systems and network tools, deepened self-awareness, and shared problem solving, these leaders become better collaborators, facilitators and systems level problem solvers.
  • Leaders develop a strong network. Developing a strong professional and personal community might seem like a “nice to have,” but for leaders taking risks and making great things happen, having a diverse support group is essential. Having broad networks is also essential to making change happen. The unique tool of network mapping demonstrates the evolution of each leader’s network – in real time.
  • Civic innovations emerge. Over 75 significant projects and initiatives emerged in the first two years of the NLN Fresno network, building upon the foundation of deep professional understanding and strong interpersonal relationships. These are partnerships between two or more individuals/ organizations that optimize the work of all participants.
  • Collective impact / community change initiatives develop. Larger efforts to better the community will also emerge or be enhanced, based on the interest of leaders in the cohort. Such issue-based collaborations are not “make-work” projects– rather, the leaders themselves have an opportunity to determine their involvement based on their professional and personal priorities.


In 2011, The James Irvine Foundation conducted a series of focus groups with young leaders in the San Joaquin Valley of CA to explore how the foundation could support emerging leaders in this region. Building upon the ideas offered, Irvine then engaged McLeod Grant Advisors and Converge to explore the possibility of launching a regional-based leadership network. After a research and design phase that included five trips to Fresno and 53 interviews, the team reported back with three key insights and recommendations for the foundation. (In 2016,a similar process was replicated in Stanislaus County with similar findings.)

  1. Strengthen the “Connective Tissue”There are principled leaders doing exceptional work in the San Joaquin Valley, but often they are not well connected. A diverse network that improves understanding, dialogue and collaboration among these leaders could have real impact on some of the difficult problems in the region. Focusing in on a targeted geographic area facilitates the building of a well-connected network.
  2. Connect “Emerging and Established” LeadersThere are “vertical” as well as “horizontal” divides in the community. Emerging and more established leaders are often not well connected to each other. Moreover, the region does not have a robust leadership pipeline, as many talented leaders leave for opportunities elsewhere. A network that bridges emerging and established leaders can improve the overall capacity of the region.
  3. Seize the MomentPeople sense that the San Joaquin Valley is poised for change, and may now be at a historic tipping point. Important initiatives are underway, and significant government and private resources are converging in the area. Talented individuals are returning, or choosing to stay in the community. A network that aligns these individuals and efforts can yield collective impact beyond the sum of its parts.