5 ways that backbone organizations can support collective impact

By Suzanne Schwenger

We hear a lot about the importance of collective impact these days.  A recent article by the U.S. based Policy Link  argues that equity is at the centre of collective impact, and talks about the role of "backbone organizations" to support collaborative initiatives in the community. 

What is a backbone organization?  A backbone organization or group of organizations play a coordinating and linking role to ensure the success of a multi-sector, community based initiative.  Backbone Organizations play a complex, behind-the-scenes role in the success of these collective impact initiatives. The Tamarack Institute says that a backbone organization requires a diversity of skills and is essential to maintain alignment across the partners.

The following is summarized from Policy Link's article called 'Equity-the Soul of Collective Impact:

5 elements are essential to the success of backbone organizations and by extension, the collective impact endeavor. 

Collective impact theory rightly recognizes that a backbone organization is essential for shepherding a collaborative initiative. 

We believe it takes a certain kind of organization to support collective impact partnerships to address structural racism, engage communities, and advocate for systems and policy change to achieve significant results for low-income communities and communities of color. 

1. Backbone organizations must embody a leadership voice and pattern of behaviors that live and breathe equity. Although the collective impact framework calls for the backbone to serve as a neutral facilitator, we believe that backbone organizations must bring a point of view, infusing collective impact partnerships with a focus on fairness and inclusion and a commitment to create the change that will ensure everyone has access to the opportunities and resources it takes to succeed. Backbone organizations need to have expertise and experience in advancing equity and in bringing the needed technical, process, and political skills to collective impact efforts. 

2. Backbone organizations must have the courage, capacity, and credibility to take on the biggest problems in our nation, starting with structural racism. Diversity is critical in the leadership of the organization, both executives and board members, and throughout the staff. Leaders and staff must be comfortable talking about issues of race, equity, and inclusion. The organization must bring deep community ties, credibility across constituencies, and strong connections with the full range of stakeholders. 

3. Backbone organizations must be adept at using a disciplined approach such as Results Based Accountability, for moving from talk to action and creating the right container that enables leaders to align the contributions of diverse partners in a way that makes long-term, transformative work happen. This also requires a strong shared culture of accountability for improving results for entire populations and for ensuring that the community is fully integrated into the collective impact process and partnerships. Without such accountability, the effort is structured in a severely flawed manner. Backbone organizations should use data for learning, continuous improvement, and shared accountability, and the data must be used by all partners, not simply data managers. 

4. Backbone organizations must be flexible. They need to know how to manage the culture of shared accountability while simultaneously coaching from the sidelines to support and amplify the efforts of local leaders. They need to be prepared to provide resources—people, research, and strategy guidance—to advance a policy agenda. They must also be willing to step out front and lead when necessary, especially to keep equity as the driving force of the initiative.

5.  Backbone organizations must hold themselves and the collective impact partnerships they shepherd accountable for achieving results for thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. 

This requires the skill, capacity, and commitment to educate, organize, and advocate for systems and policy change. And it requires staying power for the long journey to achieve transformative results.