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Connecting People and Places in Cincinnati

Collective Impact has been taken to a new level in Cincinnati, where the concept has blossomed under the support of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF).

GCF, a community foundation, has developed a visionary strategic grantmaking framework, Connecting People and Places. This strategy leverages existing Collective Impact initiatives, supporting, sustaining, and scaling systems change efforts to address issues important to the community, including educational success, strong communities, cultural vibrancy, job creation, environmental stewardship, economic opportunity, and health and wellness. These initiatives are coming together in search of even greater alignment.

Backbone organizations, such as Strive Partnership, United Way’s Success by Six, Partners for a Competitive Workforce, Vision 2015, Agenda 360, and LISC’s place matters, many of whom already work closely to complementary ends, are taking a look at how they can come together around common goals to achieve greater results. Working with GCF and these organizations, FSG has had the opportunity to learn more about the activities and outcomes of the backbone organizations that drive this collective work. A challenge in this—and a constant challenge for backbone organizations (not unlike foundations and consultants)—is understanding the impact of backbone work when it is several steps removed from direct impact in the community.

GCF has made a meaningful investment in this cohort of organizations, and thus seeks to understand the extent to which and how these organizations are effective as backbones, and how their respective efforts are advancing their Collective Impact initiatives. As GCF’s evaluation partner in this work, we have had the opportunity to learn more about these organizations. They are:

  • Agenda 360: economic competitiveness in Cincinnati  
  • LISC’s place matters: community development in three neighborhoods in the Greater Cincinnati area
  • Partners for a Competitive Workforce: workforce development
  • Strive Partnership: education, cradle to career
  • Success by 6: early childhood education
  • Vision 2015: economic competitiveness in Northern Kentucky [note that the Vision 2015 initiative is closely aligned with Agenda 360 across the river]

While many of these organizations have begun to see progress towards the goals of their initiatives, and stakeholders can speak to the importance of the backbone organization in the collective work, most backbones still struggle to communicate their “value add” to the communities in which they work. What do backbone organizations do?

FSG’s recent SSIR article Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work (January 2012) delved further into the workings of Collective Impact. Through our work with leaders from several of the backbone organizations in Cincinnati, six core activities for backbones emerged:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

In Cincinnati, we have surveyed and interviewed the backbones’ stakeholders to understand:

  • how and to what extent the backbones are doing each of these activities;
  • how and to what extent are backbone activities leading to outcomes at the partner, initiative, or community level;
  • the unique value of the backbone role, or, “If not for this backbone organization, where would your Collective Impact initiative and the community be?”

If backbone organizations are seeking to know and articulate their value within a Collective Impact effort, asking these questions might be a good place to start.

How would you answer these questions for your Collective Impact efforts? What other strategies have you seen backbones use to successfully understand and demonstrate their value to stakeholders?