Overcoming Pitfalls for Funders Also Playing the Backbone Role


Funders often wear many hats in collective impact efforts, from convening partners to funding the infrastructure needed to guide cross-sector partnerships. One role that funders might also find themselves playing – either intentionally or sometimes by default – is that of backbone support for a collective impact effort.

How to prioritize and support backbone functions has emerged as a priority for many funders. For example, the topic of funder/backbone relationships was a prominent theme at the Collective Impact Funder Convening in New Orleans in May (see the video of the May 5th plenary session on navigating the funder/backbone relationship). In the post-meeting survey, several funder attendees recommended additional dialogue among their peers on how the funder/backbone relationship plays out when funders are actually playing the backbone role.

Based on this feedback, the Collective Impact Forum organized a small group discussion with the Collective Impact Funder Community of Practice (COP), a group of funders engaging in a year-long learning community with their peers about investing in collective impact. We asked participants to reflect on when and how funders are playing the backbone role, and what pitfalls to avoid when taking on this responsibility. Below are some notable questions and key themes that emerged from this small group discussion:

What are the primary reasons why some funders play the backbone role?

Many funders play the backbone role because no one else in the community has the capacity to facilitate planning meetings, provide communications support, and/or analyze data across partners in a collective impact effort. Some funders said they don’t view it as a permanent solution for a funder to also be the backbone.

Ideally, a neutral organization (or multiple organizations) would take on the backbone functions over time. Another funder, however, said that the community encouraged them to own the backbone responsibilities because they have the assets, relationships, and expertise to provide backbone support.

What are the greatest challenges for those wearing both funder and backbone hats?

One private foundation leader said during our COP small group call that their greatest concern in playing the backbone role is that “people will become dependent on us driving it.” Other concerns focused on neutrality and accountability for funders as backbones.

As one community foundation leader noted, “we try to be neutral (as a funder and backbone simultaneously), but when we drive something it sets the expectation that the engagement (of others in the community) comes with a potential for funding. Also, when being a funder and backbone at the same time, it’s hard to hold ourselves accountable as a backbone.”

Given these concerns, many participants said it was important to be upfront about these challenges and develop a plan for sharing responsibility with others in the community over time.

How do you navigate the power dynamics when playing both roles?

Funders may need to play the backbone role in the short-term given local context and capacity needs, but there are real tensions that exist if funders play that role over the long term.

One potential work-around is to “house” the backbone function within a funder’s office to take advantage of some back-end capacities (e.g., rent, IT, office supplies), but ensure that backbone staff are separate from the grantmaking staff. Regardless of where the backbone function resides, it is important to openly identify areas of tensions and power differential between funders and others involved in a collective impact effort.

How do you transition in and out of the backbone role?

One private foundation leader said his organization has had to consciously identify what backbone roles others can play. As we see in many communities, backbone functions are diverse and don’t necessarily have to be done by the same person or even by one organization alone. While it can create confusion to distribute backbone functions across multiple organizations, some funders have found success in divesting some of the backbone roles in their communities early on and identifying others who can step up as advocates for collective impact. As one funder COP participant noted, “We need to let others feel ownership and shine.”

Another funder is considering the potential of bringing in a third party entity who has a neutral stake in the community to facilitate meetings and ensure that this one foundation isn’t solely pushing the issue. Other communities have taken a request for proposals (RFP) approach to choosing the backbone. Once there is real buy-in and momentum in a community, funders noted that an RFP could be a promising way to identify one or more organizations to play that important backbone infrastructure role.

What has been your experience with funders playing the backbone role? What are the greatest pitfalls that you have seen, and what are ways of addressing those hurdles? Please share with us your thoughts in the comments.


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