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How to Secure Funding for Your Backbone Organization

“Sounds great, how can I get this funded?”

“We’re doing really exciting work in my region, but we’re concerned about sustainability.”

“The backbone just doesn’t seem as exciting to fund as the programmatic interventions.”

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In the past couple weeks, I’ve had several conversations with a number of collective impact efforts. Despite the diversity of these efforts— efforts that span a range of social issues; some emerging, some established; some rural, some urban; and happening all around the country—I’ve been struck by a common challenge they’re facing: funding!

A few months ago, I presented with Emily Jensen, Lead Development Officer at the Forum for Youth Investment, at the Forum’s Ready by 21 National Meeting about Funding Your Collective Impact Effort. Emily provided a wealth of resources which I wanted to make sure were shared more broadly given how often we hear this question. 

The entire presentation can be found here.

First, Emily presented a fundraising overview, with a “top 10” things to know about fundraising in general. In the collective impact context, I found her #7 to be most significant: the timeline on typical funding streams is much longer than one might think, ranging from 3-24 months on average. 

Next, she shared “must have’s” for securing funding for a backbone organization, including:

  • Fundraising/Entrepreneurial mindset 

  • Case Statement for backbone organization and collective impact effort

  • Commitment to blending/braiding funds

  • Ability to engage potential funders across the spectrum of collective impact investment

  • Flexibility to parse out core functions and projects to fit into funder priorities

I would also add a “nice to have”:

  • Champions (whether public officials, philanthropic actors, or other influential stakeholders) who can help to make the case and build relationships on your behalf

Note that the case statement, or brief document that explains “why should I fund this? What’s the change I can expect to see?,” needs to include both the backbone and the broader collective impact effort. With the powerful interstitial, connecting work of the backbone, efforts will be more likely to succeed in achieving the broader systems change they strive for. As such, it’s important to be tracking—and communicating to funders—both the process outcomes and the ultimate change outcomes for the target population and community.

Emily and I then tag-teamed on the “top 10” ways to finance your backbone and collective impact effort. More detail on each potential source is included in the presentation, but for maximum sustainability, most efforts will want to blend or braid resources across these funding sources, including:

  1. Federal dollars (e.g., Promise Neighborhoods, SAMHSA, Title 1, WIA)

  2. State dollars (e.g., Children’s Cabinets, state planning dollars)

  3. In-kind staff and services (e.g., WIBs, higher education institutions, municipal / county agencies) 

  4. Local United Way

  5. Foundations (e.g., family, community, regional, funders’ collaborative, corporate, national foundations with place-based initiatives)

  6. Local businesses (e.g., Chamber of Commerce)

  7. Tithing / dues structure / pooled resources 

  8. Individual major donors

  9. Dedicated funding streams (e.g., special taxing districts / taxes and levies) 

  10. Social investment bonds

We interrupted for a “brief commercial announcement,” sharing findings from FSG’s conversations with funders (#5) who are deeply engaged in collective impact about their challenges and successes. For example, taking a collective impact approach allows funders the opportunity to increase efficiency of resources, drive alignment, and, most importantly, amplify their impact. However, it requires a fundamentally different approach for many foundations and their boards, moving to an “adaptive” approach that is more aligned with complex issues. 

For more on the role of foundations in collective impact efforts, please see Investing in Change and follow-up blog series on the topic: (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). 

For more on how backbone organizations mobilize the funding and resources required to support and sustain the work of the collective impact initiative over time, please see this blog post by my colleague Jennifer Splansky.

I’d love to hear from you: How have you managed the challenge of securing funding for your backbone effort? What funding streams were most useful, how did you bring funders along in the process, and what were some of the most important conditions to have in place?  

Emily Malenfant

Former Chief Administrative Officer, FSG