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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.