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Evolving Our Understanding of Backbone Organizations 

Close readers of FSG’s writing on collective impact will notice that our current understanding of the role of backbone organizations is not exactly the same as it was in January 2012. When the Stanford Social Innovation Review published Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work, our “research confirmed that” backbone organizations “serve six essential functions: providing overall strategic direction, facilitating dialogue between partners, managing data collection and analysis, handling communications, coordinating community outreach, and mobilizing funding.”

Even this definition was a refinement of what we wrote about backbone organizations the previous year.

At the time Channeling Change was published, we had just begun exciting work with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and a cohort of six backbone organizations to design and implement an evaluation of backbone effectiveness. In subsequent months, we worked closely with these practicing (real live!) backbone organizations and interviewed or surveyed over 130 of their stakeholders. We asked them about the role of the backbone organization and received a wonderfully rich portrait of the greatly valued backbone organizations in their community.

In near-real time, we then co-authored with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation another piece for Stanford Social Innovation Review, published in July, that chronicled our experience – the process, our findings, and… a new definition of the role of backbone organizations. This time, we said, “They guide vision and strategy, support aligned activities, establish shared measurement practices, build public will, advance policy, and mobilize funding.” Still six core functions, but with a few new twists:

  • “Provide overall strategic direction” became “guide vision and strategy.” Some backbone organizations take issue with the idea that they are leading the strategic direction of collective impact initiatives. Rather, it’s the steering committee that provides the strategic direction; backbone organizations are the standard bearers that ensure the vision and strategy that have been defined by the leadership and partners remain in plain view, if not at the forefront, of everyone’s work.

  • “Facilitate dialogue between partners” became “support aligned activities.” Backbone organizations do much more than act as a matchmaker between partners. In Cincinnati, backbone organizations told us they will do just about anything to ensure mutually reinforcing activities occur. Facilitating communications between partners is just the beginning. They convene, provide technical assistance and coaching or mentoring to partners, incubate new collaborations, and recruit new partners.

  • “Manage data collection and analysis” became “establish shared measurement practices.” Backbone organizations do not always directly manage data collection and analysis on behalf of their partners. More important is the role that backbone organizations play in catalyzing or developing sustainable shared measurement systems. Backbone organizations ensure that partners see the value in data and have the data capacity to collect, analyze, and use data for their own continuous improvement. They achieve this by providing technical assistance or additional staff capacity. Although it may seem like a subtle nuance in our phrasing, the difference between these two activities is like the difference between taping together excel spreadsheets and building an integrated technology platform for sharing and using data among partners.

  • When the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the backbone organizations considered “handling communications,” the question became … to what end? The communications function of backbone organizations really serves multiple purposes: guiding vision and strategy, aligning activities of partners, etc. Calling this activity out on its own didn’t resonate, so we dropped it.

  • “Coordinate community outreach” became “build public will.” We know that the community’s voice is essential to collective impact initiatives. “Outreach” alone did not capture the impact that backbone organizations are trying to achieve. “Building public will” means raising awareness and support for the initiative, as well as getting community members to feel empowered to enact change and take action themselves.  Backbones do this by working directly in the community on behalf of partners or working through partners to build public will indirectly.

  • “Advance policy” was a new addition to our job description. Here too is a specific use of communications. In addition, backbone organizations see their role as building awareness and advocating for policies that align to the common agenda.

  • “Mobilize funding” did not change. What we learned, however, was that backbone organizations in Cincinnati do this to not only bring in new resources, but also to shift existing funding to better align partners’ activities and doing what works.

  • We are fortunate to have had an opportunity to revise our understanding in such a robust way. To learn more about this new definition of backbone organizations and our work in the Greater Cincinnati region, read our July 2012 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact, now downloadable as a single pdf.

backbone rolesOur understanding of the key functions of backbone organizations has evolved 

We (still) maintain that the lack of backbone support is one of the most frequent reasons why collective impact initiatives fail. For this reason, we will continue to take opportunities to learn more and evolve our understanding of the role of backbone organizations. If you are, or know of, a backbone organization that has been operating for more than one year, please let us know in the comments section below!

Ellen Martin

Former Associate Director of Partnerships, Shared Value Initiative