Searching for the Right Backbone Structure

Since FSG’s Mark Kramer and John Kania published their article on Collective Impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review in early 2011, we have received numerous questions about the most appropriate supporting infrastructure – or “backbone organization” – to sustain a successful Collective Impact strategy.

Backbone organizations can serve many functions, such as providing overall project strategic direction, facilitating effective dialogue between partners, managing data collection and analysis, and coordinating community outreach. As my colleague Javier Hernandez noted in his recent blog, backbones range from being funders themselves to being completely separate entities from funders.

Through secondary research and interviews, we have identified a variety of potential backbone structures, each with their own strengths and drawbacks depending on local or issue-specific context. More centralized approaches include funder-based, new nonprofit, existing nonprofit, and government backbones.

  • Funder-Based: One or more private funders or corporate funders can initiate a Collective Impact strategy as a planner, financier, convener, and facilitator. Funder-based backbones, such as the Calgary Homeless Foundation, have the benefit of being able to secure start-up funding and recurring resources. Funder-based backbones also have the power and influence to bring other funders and other partners to the table. However, funder-based backbones must prioritize broad community buy-in, particularly if the effort is driven by one primary funder.
  • New Nonprofit: A newly created entity can be created by one or more funders to serve as a backbone. Newly created nonprofit backbones, such as the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) in Seattle, can bring neutrality and clarity of focus to the issue. However, a potential concern for newly created entities is managing perceived competition for funding with other local nonprofits.
  • Existing Nonprofit: An established nonprofit can also take the lead in coordinating a Collective Impact strategy. For example, Opportunity Chicago is led and administered by the Chicago Jobs Council, a well-established non-profit organization that has 30 years of experience in economic development. While existing nonprofits may have credibility and an understanding of the issue, they may not be able to focus solely on the Collective Impact strategy given other competing priorities.
  • Government: A local or state-level government can also potentially provide supporting infrastructure for a Collective Impact strategy by leveraging existing public sector resources. For example, the obesity reduction initiative Shape Up Somerville is staffed by Somerville’s local health department, in partnership with Tufts University and other local players. Government-led backbones may provide credibility by attracting multiple partners, but they must react quickly to changing needs and plan for funding alternatives given potential public financing constraints.

While many backbone structures are centralized with one entity, there are other examples of decentralized backbones where responsibility is shared across multiple organizations. Philadelphia’s dropout reduction effort, Project U-Turn, is managed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, but the strategy is jointly managed through a citywide collaborative with the local school district, city agencies, foundations, and youth-serving organizations. Similarly, the Magnolia Place Community Initiative in Los Angeles has dedicated staff that drives the work, but there are multiple partner organizations playing key pieces of the backbone role as well, such as data collection and analysis.

Decentralized backbone structures can result in more buy-in if roles and responsibilities are clearly articulated. Backbones with shared responsibility across multiple organizations can also bring multiple strengths to the table. Despite the benefits of this shared structure, some drawbacks may include difficulty coordinating activities and sustaining the work across multiple partners. These decentralized approaches can be less efficient and more process-heavy given the number of partners involved, particularly if there is not clear division of responsibilities or if staff is not explicitly allocated.

When determining an appropriate backbone structure, whether it is centralized or decentralized, it is important to take into account local or issue-specific context and consider the extent to which the new or existing backbone organizations meet these criteria: ability to secure funding, perceived neutrality, clear ownership of issue, broad community buy-in, and strong convening power. Many of the most promising Collective Impact examples have a backbone that meets some – if not all – of these criteria in providing overall strategic direction.

We look forward to sharing other promising examples of Collective Impact in practice in future blog posts, including those efforts that have identified the right backbone structure to provide supporting infrastructure.

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