FSG and The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) partnered to understand and evaluate the role of backbone organizations in collective impact efforts. This article, originally published as a 4-part blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, shares FSG's and GCF's experience of working with a cohort of six backbone organizations in Cincinnati to help funders and practitioners understand what it takes to be a backbone and what the value of this necessary, though often behind the scenes, role is in collective impact.

This article is adapted from its original publication in July 2012 as a four-part blog series in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, www.ssireview.org/blog.

Effective backbone support is a critical condition for collective impact. In fact, the lack of a strong backbone is the number one reason that collective impact initiatives fail. In this publication, we provide communities and organizations engaged in collective impact with guidance on the role of the backbone and how to understand and support its effectiveness.

In the Greater Cincinnati region, collective impact has become the “new normal,” and The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) has made a commitment to support the infrastructure of collective impact – the backbone organization itself – in an effort to sustain and scale long-term systemic change and impact in the community. However, the role of the backbone organization in collective impact is complex and can be difficult to explain.

In early 2012, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and FSG began a partnership to define the value of backbone organizations and better understand backbone effectiveness by working with six local backbone organizations and collective impact initiatives. We learned that backbone organizations essentially pursue six common activities to support and facilitate collective impact which distinguish this work from other types of collaborative efforts. Over the lifecycle of an initiative, they:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

Over time, backbone organizations can expect these activities to lead to changes among partners, funders, policymakers, and community members which, in turn, lead to more effective systems and improved community outcomes. Through our research, we also gained insight into the value of backbone organizations and their leaders. Across organizations, the value of backbone support was commonly viewed as unmistakable; individual partners could not do the work of collective impact without it. In addition, backbone leaders must possess certain key characteristics that make them effective in the complex collective impact environment.

Yet beyond these commonalities, the way that each backbone organization approaches the role varies depending on their context. As a result of our work, GCF and FSG have created a community of practice of six regional backbone organizations. Through our process, backbone organizations are using the data we’ve collected to inform their individual work. They are also finding synergies among the group and taking opportunities to leverage each other’s efforts to feed common goals.