Collaborative efforts to address complex social problems are not new – cross-sector and cross-system collaboration is a popular, and often effective, approach to working with diverse partners to tackle society’s biggest challenges. However, the structured processes and focus a strong backbone organization can provide the space for such initiatives to achieve a meaningful difference through more aligned efforts.
Backbone organizations are exactly what they sound like: the chief support system, the entity or entities charged with coordinating the various efforts of partner organizations and ensuring everyone is moving together toward a common goal. Many organizations do great work within the standard core activities of a backbone, such as convening partners, facilitating critical dialogues, communicating across the partner network, etc. However, backbones can be more than a support system. Truly catalytic backbone organizations working with complex systems-change initiatives, including collective impact work, are able to move their partners to think and act in innovative and strategic ways. Catalytic backbones take the collaboration from planning to doing by instilling a sense of trust and urgency, and providing the tools, data, and space for innovation that partners need to achieve their shared goals.
Backbone organizations – whether they are part of a collective impact initiative or not – provide structure to collective or collaborative processes. Collective impact literature identifies six essential functions of a backbone throughout the lifecycle of an initiative:
- Guide vision and strategy;
- Support aligned activities;
- Establish shared measurement practices;
- Build public will;
- Advance policy; and
- Mobilize funding.
These functions can be filled by one organization or a group of organizations working in close partnership. While simple in concept, these activities (coordinating efforts across multiple agencies with differing perspectives, agendas, funding, and even definitions of success) are more complicated in practice. Fulfilling this role successfully requires flexibility, transparency, and adaptive approaches, along with a broad range of specific skill sets, such as facilitation, evaluation, and fundraising.
There are many accessible online resources that discuss the value and how-to of these functions including:
- The Collective Impact Forum is an online resource with tools, articles, blog posts, and trainings designed to help collective impact initiatives achieve success, including a specific “backbone community.” (Log-in required).
- Collaboration for Impact is an Australian-based organization focused on helping communities work together to tackle tough issues. Their website includes a section on backbone organizations, their functions, effectiveness indicators, and examples of different types of backbones.
- Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement has a number of accessible resources through online learning communities on collaboration on complex issues.
This toolkit is designed for backbone organizations (including a group of organizations working closely together) to operate at the next level. Maybe you have been a backbone for a while and are ready to move the work in a new direction, or you have been brought into an existing initiative and are looking to bring new life into the processes, or a new funding opportunity has arisen that can take the collaborative to the next level. Perhaps new partners have become critical to advance your work past stubborn barriers, or community dynamics or external events are pushing new issues onto your agenda. The tips and tools in this guide outline several opportunities for existing backbone organizations to assess their current status, providing specific processes for review and tools to put findings into action.
|If you are looking to…||Jump to…|
|Change how the participating organizations work together, from decision-making practices to defining their roles.||Clarifying Vision & Governance|
|Change who is part of the process, both those at the governance table, but also those engaged in a variety of other ways.||Strategic Engagement|
|Change the conversation, moving from the same ideas repackaged in new ways to truly innovative, groundbreaking ideas that can scale or expand the scope and reach of successful solutions.||Supporting Innovation & Scaling Change|
|Change the sustainability of the work, both the initiative and the solutions, by building and managing a base of funding.||Mobilizing & Managing Funding|
|Change the ability of the initiative to steadily improve by integrating real-time and evaluative learning into how decisions are made.||Integrating Data, Evaluation & Learning Practices|