Last month, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) and FSG Social Impact Advisors (FSG) published a series of blogs in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on “Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact” in which they shared their insights about the work of six backbone organizations in the Greater Cincinnati area.
A must read for those working in the field of collective impact, these blogs help define the important role of backbone organizations as an effective catalysts for community change.
As I was reading the posts, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that there is a risk that communities and specific organizations could jump to forming so many backbone organizations in a given community that we end up creating just another layer of bureaucracy. In fact, one of the communities that responded to these blog posts noted that their community has nine backbone organizations related to education. Nine! That seems like a lot of infrastructure, doesn’t it, when you factor in that each backbone organization has at least a director and, in many cases, additional staff? While collective impact backbone organizations typically run lean and mean, impacting significantly more resources than what is required for their operations, I had to wonder how efficient is it to create multiple backbone organizations to do this work? Especially given the beauty of collective impact is the ability to create efficiencies, do more with less and leverage existing resources to achieve impact.
I can see where there could be room for more than one backbone in a community. They could represent different geographies or issue areas (health, education, transportation, etc.). But when there are several backbone organizations with overlapping outcomes, there is an opportunity to be more efficient about the infrastructure created to do collective impact locally. This is especially important considering how challenging it is to find resources to support backbone infrastructure. I recently sat on a panel presentation at a conference for funders who were interested in supporting collective impact initiatives. As part of my panel presentation, I discussed how critical it is for funders to provide backbone support. More than one funder questioned how these efforts could be sustained and I made the arguments that the investment in infrastructure was minimal compared to the impact that could be had and that the efficiencies created as a result of achieving greater impact could be reinvested to support the infrastructure. Reading the blogs has me a bit worried this may not be true when you have multiple backbone organizations in a community. I have to ask: When does it become too much infrastructure to break even, much less see a return on investment, as a result of creating efficiencies?
As the collective impact movement continues to grow, I become increasingly worried about the inundation of backbone organizations. Last month, I attended a convening focused on collective impact initiatives for improving outcomes in grade-level reading, and just a few weeks ago I participated in another convening of collective impact initiatives focused on opportunity youth. My fear is that with the perpetual buzz around collective impact, the first thing that will come out of these convenings is the creation of new backbone infrastructure. I will argue that in many communities, the backbone infrastructure to do collective impact already exists. In fact, in more than 60 communities across the country it exists in the form of Cradle to Career Network partnerships. As part of the StriveTogether Network, these sites already have or are committed to putting into place the core elements of effective backbone organizations. They are using evidence to drive decisions as well as data for continuous improvement and aligning resources around what works. Additional backbone infrastructure is not needed. Rather, I’d argue that you need a convener in each of the outcome areas (e.g. early childhood, grade-level reading, opportunity youth, college completion, etc.) to bring content expertise and better organize the work, but the infrastructure is already in place.
In the human body, the backbone connects and provides infrastructure for the many smaller vertebrae. Let’s consider a parallel in the collective impact field, in which one backbone connects several conveners of outcome areas. The role of the backbone organization is to provide connectivity between these different outcome areas representing segments along the educational continuum. The relation of the backbone organization to the conveners is not one of authority but rather of support often in the form of data analysis, facilitation, communication and access to a leadership table that is willing to advocate for what works. It is through a cradle-to-career partnership that collective impact is realized holistically. In a field where vernacular is so important, let’s try to be very clear about what we mean when we define the role of the backbone versus the role of the convener.