Collective Impact Backbones – Different Approaches and a lot of Complexity


A closer look at the diversity of collective impact efforts reveals a diversity of backbone infrastructure designs as well. Depending on the size and scope of the collective impact effort, and the unique context it is operating in, the backbone may look and be structured differently.

There are six core functions of a backbone that closely align with the conditions of collective impact:

  • Advancing the overall vision and strategy
  • Establishing shared measurement
  • Aligning activities and resources
  • Building public will
  • Advancing policy
  • Securing resources and funding

Backbone Structures:  Form Follows Function

But how do these functions happen?  There are generally four different models for backbone structures that I have observed.

  • The Stand-Alone Backbone – This backbone model operates as a stand-alone organization that has charitable or 501c3 status.  In this case, the backbone has formed into its own organization with a board of directors providing oversight and direction and a larger advisory community which is made up of community partners
  • The Nested Backbone — This backbone model is  made up of a small staff team of 3 to 6 individuals who are housed within the organization of one of the partners.   The partner organization acts as the fiscal host and the staff team is accountable to both the Board of the fiscal host and the collective impact leadership group.
  • The Volunteer Backbone – This backbone model is an all-volunteer team of community leaders who work collaboratively to drive the collective impact effort forward.  The all-volunteer backbone team usually has engaged a larger advisory table with whom they meet on a monthly or quarterly basis.  One of the all-volunteer team members acts as the fiscal host for revenue and reporting purposes.
  • The Seconded Backbone – This backbone model is made up of a group of staff that are currently employed by an existing organization and have been seconded to create the backbone infrastructure of the collective impact effort on a part-time or full-time basis.  The existing organization provides the salary and supports to the backbone staff.  The backbone staff report to the CEO of the existing organization as well as to a larger collaborative table.

In each of these four models, there is a mix of reporting and accountability relationships that must be clarified and sorted out.  There is also the potential for misperception and miscommunication to occur.

Collective Impact – Values and Principles

This is why it is vital, in the early stages of a collective impact effort for the leadership table to come to agreement on the values and principles which will guide their work.  Values and principles can be important guide posts for how decisions will be made; how the group will work together; and how conflicts can be addressed.  They can also serve as an opportunity to make declarative statements about issues such as equity of voice.

Here are some broad values and principles which can serve as a starting point for backbones to consider:

  • Transparency and Accountability:  Decisions take place in the public eye.
  • Equity and Inclusiveness:  All interests who are needed and willing contribute to solution.
  • Effectiveness and Efficiency:  Solutions are tested to make sure they make practical sense.
  • Responsiveness: Public concerns are authentically addressed.
  • Forum Neutrality: Different perspectives are welcome; the process itself has no bias.
  • Consensus-Based: Decisions are made through consensus rather than majority rule.

Collective impact leadership tables and backbone staff should work together to clarify their own values and principle statements and use these to guide their collective efforts.

Multiple Levels of Accountability and Authority

In each of the four different backbone models there are multiple levels of both accountability and authority.  It is important that these ‘reporting relationships’ be clarified and documented as early as possible.  Agreeing who has to report to whom for what purpose is vital.  When considering accountabilities, backbones should specifically consider:

  • Hiring of Backbone Staff – Who are the staff directly accountable to?  Who is supervising their work?  Who is responsible for ensuring that hiring and performance practices are followed?
  • Securing and Allocating Funds – Who makes the decisions about securing and allocating funds?  How open and transparent is this process?
  • Building Public Will and Communicating about the Collective Impact Effort – What are the key messages and who has the authority to speak on behalf of the collective impact effort?
  • Advancing the Policy Agenda – What process needs to be followed to develop and push forward a policy agenda?  Who need to be involved in this decision-making process?  What happens if one or more of the partners does not agree with the policy statements?  What if a policy position challenges a position of partner organization?

The backbone structure in collective impact efforts is simple in design and complex in operation.  To learn more about backbones, their key roles, governance and implementation tools and templates, join us at the Champions for Change:  Leading a Backbone effort for Collective Impact April 19 – 21, 2016 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You will meet other backbone leaders engaged in collective impact work and build your knowledge and expertise about this critical function.


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