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Responding to Backbone as Borg

Posted by: Emily Gorin Malenfant on 12/3/2012

I found Vu Le’s take on collective impact through the lens of Star Trek to be highly thoughtful, in addition to being humorous and quite entertaining. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Le’s point that: “However, like taking naps at work, Collective Impact should be done strategically and sometimes not at all.” Indeed, Collective Impact requires deep and sustained work and fundamentally changing “business as usual.” For relatively straightforward problems which can be solved by a handful of organizations, Collective Impact often just isn’t worth the effort. For those social and environmental problems which are truly complex—like rehabilitating a youth, tackling the highest rates of youth substance abuse in the state, or cleaning up a river that spans multiple counties—and require multi-sectoral alignment and coordination, Collective Impact does offer a rigorous framework for creating, measuring, and sustaining that change.

Mr. Le expresses frustration that significant financial resources are now being directed to support of Collective Impact efforts:

“Another frustration I've seen is funders shifting the funding priorities from direct service work to Collective Impact efforts and backbone organizations. Queries about support for direct impact programs often come back with 'Sorry, we are now prioritizing funding the Borg's work. Maybe you should go talk to them.' This is extremely frustrating. While the push is for everyone to align with CI efforts, the funding is not equitable. Direct service organizations, especially the ones that focus on communities of color, can only be involved in these amazing, region-wide efforts if we are strong and stable and have credibility with our clients.”
 

While I empathize with Mr. Le’s frustration and agree about the importance of stable direct service organizations, particularly those focused on communities of color, in my work and conversations around the country I do not see this same widespread funding shift. In fact, in many ways I wish such a shift were happening more than it currently is. Currently, dozens of high-quality backbones and partner organizations struggle to mobilize sufficient funding for the often “un-sexy” interstitial work—strategy, meetings, planning, keeping partners aligned, etc. Even the very organizations Mr. Le paints as Borgs are often struggling for funding to do their most critical work.

I worry that Collective Impact becomes the scapegoat in this analogy, where the perception is that on-the-ground organizations doing good work can’t get funding because it is all going to the humongous Borg backbone. In fact, the balance of total philanthropic funding—by far—still does not go to organizations who are acting as the backbone. While some funders are beginning to invest in building out the infrastructure for collective impact efforts, the vast majority of funders are still challenged by infrastructure investment.

I absolutely agree with Mr. Le’s conclusion that “.. funding must be equitable and direct service must be simultaneously supported.” Collective impact efforts are nothing without the critical on the ground, direct service efforts that help to drive real change for those who need it most. FSG recently hosted a webinar, Investing in Change: Funding Collective Impact Efforts, focused on the funder’s role in collective impact efforts, and we responded to follow-up questions after the webinar on the need for funding infrastructure in a series of blog posts.  As my colleague Fay Hanleybrown recently underscored in this post:

“We have come to understand that the infrastructure responsibilities of the backbone organization are critical to success in collective impact. It is, however, also important that direct services organizations are supported to engage in collective impact efforts. Direct service organizations need investments in the time to participate on work groups and committees, in continuous communication, and in executing activities that are aligned with the common agenda… Given the traditional aversion of funders to give for operational or infrastructure tasks, it is important to recognize the need to invest in backbone organizations; but direct service organizations absolutely need support for both infrastructure and programmatic work in collective impact.”
 
What are you seeing in your community? How are funders ensuring that both the organizations acting as the backbone and the on-the-ground partner organizations have access to appropriate resources to do their work effectively?



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Vu
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Thanks for the very thoughtful response, Emily. It made me realize that CI efforts vary across states. Here in Seattle it is a big thing, and many direct-service organizations are feeling very frustrated by the sudden shift and imbalance. I think the bottom line is that CI backbone organizations and direct-service orgs must both be simultaneously supported.
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Emily Malenfant
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Vu, couldn't agree more. And thanks for painting the picture in Seattle in a way that deftly uses humor to lend caution on a critical point.
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