Last week, FSG and the Stanford Social Innovation Review co-hosted a webinar further exploring the issues and concepts presented in the article Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work. Moderated by Eric Nee, Managing Editor of SSIR, the session featured speakers Marc Van Amerigen, CEO of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); Kat Allen, Co-Chair of the Communities That Care Coalition of Franklin County and the North Quabbin; and John Kania, Managing Director at FSG. Focused specifically on the role of backbone organizations, the webinar delved deeper into the experiences of two very different coalitions featured prominently in the article: GAIN, a global alliance fighting malnutrition in over 30 countries, and Communities That Care, a community-based alliance reducing youth substance abuse in a rural region of Western Massachusetts.
The webinar was a great success, with almost 500 participants joining from across the country, representing non-profit organizations, corporations, foundations, advocates, and policymakers, and working on every issue under the sun, including health, education, environment, social justice, and economic development. The amount of knowledge and expertise on the phone for that hour was truly remarkable!
Throughout the webinar, the speakers received nearly 170 thought-provoking, insightful questions. Although we only were able answer a handful of these during the live session, Marc and Kat have generously agreed respond to two questions that emerged as prominent themes. Their answers are below.
1.) How can the backbone organization ensure a sense of ownership and build mutual accountability between partner organizations?
Marc Van Amerigen, GAIN: I think the idea of shared ownership is an important concept. When we facilitate a partnership, we try to ensure that all of the parties are represented and have an equal voice from the beginning. We like to clearly articulate what success looks like from all perspectives and what different contributors identify as concerns. We also try to have a very clear understanding on the part of all parties on who will take the lead and be accountable for various aspects of the program. We also try and highlight the partner organizations when we talk about the project. To be effective as a backbone organization, it’s important to be considered credible, trustworthy, and dependable. It also helps to have a track record of transparency, respect, and previous success. It is also critical that the partners stay aligned and communicate constantly to deal with changing landscapes and priorities. It is important to say that this is not always easy and often takes a lot of work, especially as partners whom we work with are in other contexts, for example resource mobilization, competitors.
Kat Allen, Communities That Care: We – like nearly everyone working on collective impact – struggle with this and work on it regularly. We try to regularly ask the question, “What’s in it for them?” Does this partner organization get something meaningful out of their participation in the coalition? Does participating in the coalition help them bring an issue that is important to them to the forefront? Do they get direct funding for their work with the coalition or does participating in the coalition give them an edge in seeking funding? Do they value the networking that comes from coalition participation? Does inclusion of their strategy in the Community Action Plan help to give their strategy more clout? Backbone organizations can ask these questions and make adjustments in order to maximize the benefits that partner organizations are receiving. When partners are receiving concrete benefits from their participation they will be more likely to have a sense of ownership and accountability.
2.) Given that collective impact efforts often seek to address long-term issues, how can the backbone maintain the engagement of partner organizations over time?
Marc Van Amerigen, GAIN: This is a very relevant question. In the work that GAIN does,we often know up front that building a successful partnership that will have impact will take years to achieve. We try to be transparent with people about the timeline, based on previous experience, to set expectations, both in terms of milestones and due dates. In the end, frequent communication is a key driver and trust amongst the partners. When people are engaged, they have an opportunity to raise challenges, seek advice for addressing them, and celebrate incremental success. That tends to motivate people to stay engaged. For multi-stakeholder partnerships, it is important to establish some architecture around the partnership, such as a platform for regular meetings, a secretariat, reporting framework, as well as a monitoring and evaluation feedback loop.
Kat Allen, Communities That Care: The Social Development Model (developed by Hawkins and Catalano) that we use to build protection in young people defines skills, opportunities, and recognition as the three key ingredients of bonding, and I think this holds for bonding coalition members to the coalition as well. Do coalition members get important, useful, current information or skills (through trainings, workshops, conferences, updates)? Do members have lots of opportunities for input and for leadership within the coalition (chairing workgroups, putting forward ideas, having meaningful discussions, making meaningful decisions)? And do coalition members receive recognition for their participation in ways that are meaningful to them (through awards, shout-outs, personal contact, thank you notes, press coverage, highlighting their programs)? If a coalition member can answer yes to these questions – and if their organization is benefiting from coalition participation as described above – they are likely to be engaged in the coalition and maintain their engagement over time.
As we at FSG continue the conversation around how to make collective impact work, we would love to hear additional stories and examples from the field. How have you been able to instill ownership and accountability among partner organizations? How are you managing, engaging, and motivating partners over time? What approaches or strategies have been most effective?