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Stanford Social Innovation Review | July 2012

The backbone is a critical but often behind-the-scenes function in collective impact initiatives. “Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact” was originally published as a four-part blog series on Stanford Social Innovation Review and provides guidance for collective impact funders and practitioners from FSG and The Greater Cincinnati Foundation on the role of the backbone and how to understand and support its effectiveness. This article appeared on

Top Takeaways

  1. Individual organizations could not do the work of collective impact without backbone support.
  2. Backbone organizations shift focus over time. Backbone organization leaders and their stakeholders alike feel that there is a natural progression from guiding vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, and establishing shared measurement practices to deeper involvement in policy and resource mobilization.
  3. Backbone organizations’ partners need ongoing assistance with data. Although establishing shared measurement practices was seen broadly as a strength of many of the backbone organizations, building partners’ capacity to contribute and use data in a shared measurement system is a common area for improvement.
  4. External communications, building public will, and advancing policy are common backbone challenges.
For those who are considering how to undertake or support a collective impact initiative, one fundamental truth about backbone effectiveness is that its leader can make or break the organization’s success.