Funders & Backbones: A messy, yet powerful relationship

Imagine a 6th grade chemistry classroom. The students have been assigned to conduct a laboratory experiment. Teams have a common agenda: to perform the experiment, measure results and report back learnings. Teams have formed; measurement standards have been set. As the work begins, the different team members are performing reinforcing tasks and communicating with each other, but as the lab experiment progresses we begin to see some teams fall apart. Groups of students are disagreeing on who needs to do what, where they can find supplies in the lab and when deadlines are. Frankly, the classroom is beginning to lose its ability to focus on the task at hand. As we look around the classroom, we begin to wonder, “Where is the teacher that is supposed to be planning, managing, and handling this group?”

The Need for Backbone Organizations
Just as making sure a classroom full of students does not fall apart and it is able to reach its goal, “creating and managing collective impact also requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative”, as discussed in Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011. “Coordinating large groups in a collective impact initiative takes time and resources, and too often, the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails.”

This past spring I was part of the process of working with a client on creating a strategy on how it could most effectively fund a successful collective impact initiative in its respective field. The hardest part for the client to fully grasp was the concept of the backbone organization, its role, the structure it could take, and the relationship between the backbone and a funder. Many questions that arose during discussions with the client and within our internal team included: “Are backbones always separate entities from funders? Are there specific organizations out there whose sole purpose is to provide backbone support to collective impact initiatives? Do new backbone organizations have to be created from scratch? Can multiple organizations be “co-backbones?”

After doing research and having time to noodle on these questions we have begun to construct some framing around some of these questions. FSG’s Collective Impact blog will be exploring many of these questions.

The Relationship between Backbone Organizations and Funders

Backbones can have different levels of “financial power” ranging from being themselves funders to being completely separate entities from funders. For example:

  1. The ASPCA, an animal welfare organization, funds collective impact initiatives in communities across the country with the goal of reducing animal homelessness. It takes on both a role of funder and backbone implementing partner, providing support for data collection and analysis, facilitation, and mentoring. Its successful approach has been to provide mentoring and support to its partners instead of letting financial incentives develop collaboration on their own.
  2. In the Home Again initiative to end chronic homelessness in Worcester, MA, its backbone organization, Community Healthlink, was a completely separate organization with no real financial incentive power over partners. It provided staff support in scheduling meetings, coordinating evaluators, keeping track of progress and management of key decisions.
  3. LiveWell Colorado, a separate 501 c3 organization, was created by the Colorado Health Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and the Kresge Foundation, and its partner the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to become the backbone organization of a collective impact initiative aiming to reduce child obesity in the state. Although it is a separate organization, it does have some “re-granting power” from its funders, giving grants to local community coalitions to collaborate on local initiatives. This “re-granting” status has been cited to help the separate organization achieve “buy-in” from its partners in working collectively.

There are probably many other variations to the hairy and complicated relationship between funders and backbone organizations of collective impact initiatives. A few questions that creep up in my mind include: “What challenges can arise from a group serving both as a funder and implementing partner? What type of relationship is developed by the funder/backbone with the groups it is both funding and working actively with? How is trust developed in these situations where groups must be able to be open and honest with their capacity and work but at the same time be able to maintain the funding they are receiving?”

If you have any examples of other backbone organization-funder models, thoughts on how they make the “relationship work,” or general comments, please do send our way!

We look forward to building further on this and other topics surrounding backbone organizations.

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