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Three Keys to a Healthy Backbone

FSG, the Strive Network, Tamarack, and the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions recently hosted a three-day workshop for leaders from backbone organizations of mature collective impact initiatives. This blog is part of a series sharing learning and reflection from the workshop.

On Christmas Day nearly 20 years ago I fractured one of my vertebrae while sledding with my daughter. Ever since, for obvious reasons, I’ve paid particular attention to backbones. Thanks to FSG my interest in backbones now extends into my professional life, as well as my personal health.  At the recent Collective Impact workshop I paid particular attention to what makes for a healthy backbone organization. After reviewing a notebook full of ideas and fresh perspectives from the workshop, three big themes emerged regarding what it takes to keep a backbone straight, strong and flexible.

  • Committed and engaged funders are required from the beginning. Because backbones need to be able to influence funding flows, they also need strong support and ownership from funders. Paul Born of the Tamarack Institute cautioned that if funders aren’t engaged in the design, development and operations of the backbone and collective impact initiatives at large, then they shouldn’t be funding the backbone. Rare is the non-profit leader with the courage to turn down funding, but Paul’s experience has taught him that getting the backbone “straight” requires funders to be at the table.

  • The strength of your backbone is a reflection of governance and leadership. As Katherine Errecart highlighted in her earlier blog post, good governance can help the backbone thrive, even in crisis (and crisis is a given within collaborations). Governance is a function of leadership and the types of leaders needed for a backbone at both the governance and staff levels are dramatically different than in a traditional organization. As John Kania of FSG told the workshop: “We are so well trained in command and control,” but that training doesn’t transfer well into complex environments. Instead, we need to devote time and dollars to training people to be collaborative leaders. And Liz Weaver advised that the type of leadership skills required will vary based on where the collaboration is on the continuum highlighted by Katherine. Just as building a strong back requires multiple exercises; a strong backbone organization and collective impact initiative will need multiple types of leaders.

  • Backbone organizations work in complex environments where unexpected opportunities emerge. This reality demands a backbone to be more flexible than the rigid structures of most organizations. But if the backbone is too flexible the collaboration will literally fall over. Data helps keep the backbone flexible and upright. Jeff Edmondson, managing director of the Strive Network, said that using data to regularly assess outcomes can keep the collaboration focused on its mission, what he called “true north,” and help the collaboration course correct. Just as importantly, data can help you figure out what might be causing your collaboration to under-perform. As a colleague noted, data tells you who is swimming and who is just treading water.

My crushed vertebrae remind me every day how important it is to have a healthy backbone. The challenges of driving positive change in complex environments provide similar, regular reminders of the vital role a straight, strong and flexible backbone plays in achieving collective impact. Those of us who work within or support backbone organizations can help build healthier backbones by effectively engaging funders early and often, implementing good governance structures that embrace different leadership skills, and relying on data to inform our actions.

Chris Thompson is director of regional engagement for the Fund for Our Economic Future, a philanthropic collaboration that supports efforts to advance a growing, opportunity-rich economy for the people of Northeast Ohio. While he’s given up sledding, he continues to take risks by encouraging greater regional collaboration. @ccarsonthompson on Twitter.