Structuring Your Collective Impact Initiative Backbone for Success

In collective impact, as with any relationship, there is no one case that is exactly like another. Grantmakers entering into a collective impact collaboration can find themselves in a confusing world of committees and other trappings of collaboration without knowing what they really need in place to make it all work. In this post we will take a look at the spectrum of management structures typically utilized in collective impact. In addition, we will provide a tool that will help a funder assess which management structure best suits their working style and collaborative needs.

There are a number of ways grantmakers can increase their impact through collaboration with other funders and stakeholders. However, one of the ways that collective impact differs from other collaborative models is the presence of a backbone organization. This body facilitates a deeper level of collaboration and coordinated action and essentially acts as the glue that holds diverse stakeholders together and moves them forward. For an in depth view of the role of backbone organizations see the 2012 SSIR article by The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and FSG. This study outlines six key activities of a backbone organization including; supporting vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurements, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing funding. They point out that the focus and function of a backbone organization changes over time as the collaboration matures.

While there are no hard and fast rules for how to structure collectives, nor their backbone organizations, we have boiled the topic down to a few basic elements for the sake of explanation. These elements include: staffing, physical location, and relationship to other management entities. Lets begin with the staffing of a backbone organization. The term “backbone organization” can be a bit misleading as it can be as little as one 0.5 FTE. In the case of Communities That Care Coalition a 0.5 FTE role is split between two organizations. On the other end of the spectrum a backbone organization may have a team of ten or more staff managing discrete functions such as evaluation, research, policy, communications, and an alignment or coordination function. In one case, Memphis Fast Forward, there is a central backbone organization for the overarching collaboration and then six separate backbone organizations for each related initiative. Depending on the stage of collaboration, the scale of the issue, and the available resources of the partners, a backbone organization can be staffed in a number of ways.

Where a backbone organization resides also offers range of options. In some scenarios, such as Shape Up Sommerville, backbone functions are assigned to staff at one of the partner agencies. In the case of Shape Up Sommerville the city health department employs staff that manage the collective initiative. In other scenarios one of the partner agencies, typically a nonprofit already adept at managing collaborations within the field, assumes the role of the backbone organization. This was the case for Opportunity Chicago, which selected an existing nonprofit, Chicago Jobs Council, with the credibility to serve as a neutral convener. In a third scenario a new organization is formed and is housed outside of the partner organizations. Wherever the backbone organization resides it is essential that the collective determine how to quantify and fund direct and indirect costs. This can be a complicated topic if the support functions are being managed by staff within one partner organization or are being split between two organizations.

The backbone organization is the engine behind a collective but it does not represent the breadth of the management structure. A backbone organization typically sits between a higher-level, policy/strategy setting, body and more narrowly focused groups charged with operationalizing discrete aspects of strategy. The terminology and some details of each of these bodies vary. For our purposes we will refer to the higher-level entity as the “steering committee” and the operationalizing entities as “working groups”. Steering committees are typically made up of representatives from a broad selection of stakeholders, although not necessarily all the interested parties. Funders frequently have a seat on the steering committee. This group sets the overarching vision for the collective and oversees the backbone organization either directly or via seats or a chair position on the board of the backbone organization. The working groups are often the experts in either a content field or with a particular audience/demographic. They can serve as conduits for a broader “grass roots” engagement, feeding information upwards and downwards, and/or enact the rollout of strategic activities.

Even with an understanding of the spectrum of management structures currently employed by collectives it can be hard for grantmakers to know where they want to situate themselves. Are they best equipped to manage a backbone staff, to provide content expertise via working groups, or to provide collaborative influence via a seat on the steering committee? To help answer these questions Olive Grove has prepared a tool to help grantmakers think through four factors, which are often competing, that inform their role within a collective. With the caveat that there is no recipe for the “right” collective this tool will weigh competing aspects against each other and direct the user towards the place in the management spectrum best suited for his/her organization’s needs.

About the author(s)

Director of Learning and People Practice
Olive Grove