27 Indicators for Backbone Effectiveness

FSG, the Strive NetworkTamarack, and the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions recently hosted a three-day workshop for leaders from backbone organizations of mature collective impact initiatives. This blog is part of a series sharing learning and reflection from the workshop.

When invited to share three words about her key learnings from Champions for Change, one backbone leader needed only two: “27 indicators!"

This individual was one of over sixty leaders of mature collective impact initiatives that convened in Cincinnati for Champions for Change: Leading a Backbone Organization for Collective Impact. Participants of the conference were hungry for information on how to articulate their value proposition. “How do we measure our efficacy as backbone organizations? How do we communicate the value of our role as backbones?” were questions asked again and again through the conference. There were over a dozen versions of this question in the first three hours of the workshop alone! As you can imagine, conference participants were excited to hear that FSG, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF), and a cohort of six backbone organizations had drafted a tool that could serve as a starting place for thinking about these questions, known to workshop participants as the “27 Indicators.”

Harnessing backbone leaders’ excitement about this tool, this post is intended to introduce the draft tool to a broader audience and propose some ideas for its use.

The Creation of 27 Indicators for Backbone Effectiveness

As documented in an SSIR blog series, GCF and FSG partnered in 2012 to “define and communicate what ‘effectiveness’ really means.” Kathy Merchant, then President/CEO of GCF, shared, “Since 1997, we had been supporting core operating for six organizations that are now part of a backbone learning community. We spent more than five million dollars over fifteen years and felt we had the responsibility to understand them well and to ensure [the funding] was worth it.”

(In case you’re wondering, GCF found that funding the backbones was definitely “worth it.” Not only did they renew their funding for these six organizations, but also invested in helping the backbones collaborate to increase their impact!)

Working together, FSG, GCF, and the cohort of backbone organizations defined a core set of six roles that all backbone organizations can and should play to successfully guide a CI initiative. The group then drafted indicators for measuring the effectiveness of the backbone in fulfilling these roles. Using that framework, FSG and GCF established the set of 27 indicators that could be used to track backbone effectiveness across the six activities. Stakeholders were interviewed and surveyed, providing a rich set of qualitative and quantitative data speaking to those indicators and to backbone effectiveness in the collective impact process.

GCF and FSG are continuing their work together and plan to update these indicators over the next two years.

Potential uses of the 27 Indicators 

For those of you eager to start using this tool, four suggestions to keep in mind: 

  • Continue talking to stakeholders: Backbones working with FSG and GCF reported that the most valuable feedback about their work came through conversations with stakeholders. In fact, stakeholder conversations were often the main source of data backbones used to assess themselves against these indicators. These indicators can help guide the conversations, but certainly should not replace them.

  • Use the indicators to structure these stakeholder (including funder!) conversations: My colleague Katherine Errecart recently posted a blog, “How to Explain Collective Impact to Your Mom.” Her message is clear, “focus on the initiative’s goal.” But, as she hints at the end of her post, sometimes you have to go deeper than the impact goal and talk about the process. This tool can help structure conversations with stakeholders who need deeper insight into the project’s infrastructure and process, specifically around the contributions and effectiveness of the backbone. 

  • Remember the benefits – and limits – of this tool: The 27 indicators were drafted to assess whether a backbone is making progress, and are not intended to speak to the success of the broader initiative. (See Channeling Change and Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement for more information about shared measures for the initiative.) While backbone progress and initiative progress should be closely linked, the subtle distinction is important: 27 indicators for the backbone, and shared measures for the initiative at large. 

  • Customize evaluation plans: Each backbone functions within a unique context. These 27 backbone outcome indicators can be used as a starting block, but backbone evaluations should be customized to tailor an evaluation to the specific initiative. The 27 indicators should not be the only way that backbones are assessed! 

How might you customize this tool for the unique context of the backbone’s role in your initiative? What other tools have you used to measure, communicate, and improve the value of your backbone organization? Your thoughts may help the team improve these indicators moving forward!


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