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The Role of Backbone Organisations in Collective Impact Initiatives

29 January 2014 at 10:08 am
Staff Reporter
Social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham unpack the issues around ‘backbone organisations’ for early-stage Collective Impact initiatives.

Staff Reporter | 29 January 2014 at 10:08 am


The Role of Backbone Organisations in Collective Impact Initiatives
29 January 2014 at 10:08 am
Dawn O'Neil AM
Kerry Graham

Social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham unpack the issues around ‘backbone organisations’ for early-stage Collective Impact initiatives. 

In our work supporting the emergence of Collective Impact in Australia we are seeing some early-stage Collective Impact struggling with issues of governance and the role of ‘the backbone’ organisation. This seems to be causing much stress and tension.  Questions arise such as:

  • Who should be the backbone organisation?
  • When do we get the backbone organisation up and running?
  • What are the skill sets needed for this entity?
  • How can we get funding for the backbone organisation?
  • How much should backbone staff be paid?
  • How do we manage the power struggles that have emerged?

What we have observed is that some Collective Impact initiatives are almost singularly focused on the backbone organisation.  In some instances, existing organisations are vying to become the backbone organisation; while in others the core collaborators are rushing to create ‘the governance structure’ and defaulting to the traditional position of creating a new entity.  

Insufficient attention is being paid to the power dynamics that are created between this entity and the broader collaboration.  Too often this power struggle is at the expense of the systems change work – engaging with the community, building a shared understanding through data, and agreeing a common agenda.

In seeking to understand this dynamic better we looked towards the lessons from the international field of Collective Impact. Recently, Jeff Edmondson from the Strive Together initiative wrote about the tension created by a focus on backbone organisations.  

His experience has led him to conclude that we should not be focusing on “backbone organisations,” but rather “backbone functions.”

In furthering this idea, Jeff talks in plain language about the backbone functions he believes are needed to start and sustain an effective Collective Impact initiative, being:

  • Ensuring there is a person who wakes up thinking about how best to act as a servant leader to a broad partnership to achieve a collective goal and move specific outcomes every day.
  • A core data analytics role that includes the development of an annual dashboard on critical community level outcomes and comprehensive data management systems, but even more importantly the building of local capacity to use data on a regular basis.
  • Facilitation of practitioners looking to take what they are learning from the analysis of local data to change how they serve their target population each and every day, building comprehensive action plans around what works to move a specific outcomes
  • Community mobilization work to get a diverse array of voices engaged in this work, building shared ownership for improvement and supporting practices that get results.
  • Convening investors so they begin to communicate about how to put resources behind what works and consider ways to incent the use of data for continuous improvement.

Jeff concluded that it is better and more effective if these functions are not performed by a single entity.  In shifting the thinking towards functions and away from a single entity, Jeff “helps us to see that this work is not about a central power center that gets created in a traditional hierarchical paradigm, but instead is about a set of shared roles that need to be played as we look to connect the dots instead of recreate the wheel.”

We think this learning is a powerful one and urge emerging Australian Collective Impact initiatives to talk about what it might mean for them.  

As we see it, it means:

  • Resisting the urge to incorporate a new entity – until the need for one is clearly established and agreed – perhaps later stage in the Collective Impact initiative?;
  • Being ‘light touch’ – only establishing and resourcing the backbone functions needed for phase of the Collective Impact framework you are in; and
  • Leveraging the existing networks, skills and capabilities within a community to perform the backbone functions needed.

About the authors: Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham have just undertaken a Collective Impact study tour in the USA on behalf of the Centre for Social Impact. Their vision is to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.   


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