• Third Sector Radio USA

    Well-stated, Dr. Varda. Thank you for writing this. The nonprofit sector has a long, and often tragic (given how resources could have been used) history of falling tor the latest “shiny new object.” Organizing to resolve wicked problems is messy (meaning complex), and requires wicked solutions, not the same old hierarchical structures that underlay and enable the problems. In my conversations with developmental evaluation coaches in Canada, CI is resoundingly rejected precisely because of the inflexibility of the collaborations.

    • Jon Huggett

      Well done, Dr. Varda. Backbone organizations shift power to consultants and funders, and away from community organizations and members. Backbone organizations are supported by consultants and funders. The lack of evidence of positive impact is telling.

      • Danielle Varda

        Thank you Jon. I hope we can generate a stronger evidence base for network effectiveness as a community, committed to testing these models, before investing in them blindly. And if the data show they ARE working, all the better!

    • Danielle Varda

      I agree completely – the fact that networks are so context dependents is what makes them so messy, and yet so effective. Thanks for your work!

  • june holley

    Brilliant article! Much needed perspective. Thanks for writing this Danielle.

    • Danielle Varda

      Many thanks June – that means a lot to me.

  • CivicCollab

    Thank you Danielle for this perceptive critique of what I agree is a common flaw in the implementation of the collective impact framework. Too often advocates of CI jump ahead to creating a backbone without doing the necessary work of network building — including engaging and empowering individuals and grassroot leaders/orgs. A wise colleague cautions that every wannabe backbone leader needs to answer these two questions: You’re the backbone of what exactly? Who says? If the members of the network don’t see the backbone as their creation, the members of the network will reject it (just as our bodies reject transplants…) Imposed backbones don’t work; ever. And any funder that diverts funding from an effective organization within the network to support the backbone is making matters worse. Such funders clearly have no idea of how collaboration works.

  • Allen Smart

    The previous respondents all highlight the clear and present distractions that CI presents for non-profits and communities. Mr Huggen calls out funders as accountable for some or all of this. After all, what funder doesn’t want a formulaic answer to “scale” that uses “metrics and data” to get “community buy-in” rather then the messy work of actually working and living side by side with people risking, failing, learning and adapting? This is particularly problematic for funders wanting to work in rural America where the role of entrepreneurial energizers has tremendous value–and contrarian ideas might be the best thing thats happened in years. So much of the CI work seems to be dispiriting and creating distance between everyone involved.

  • Danielle Varda

    Thank you all for feedback on this piece (both here and in my inbox). To see that these comments resonate with such a large audience makes me believe we need to continue the conversation, challenge the status quo, and diversify who is having the conversation. I think we all care deeply about the possibility of social change via a mechanism that is greater than what any one of us can do alone, and we all desperately want to see the power of a network come to fruition in our communities, for the causes we care about, and to secure a healthy and safe future for our children. Let’s not let institutional norms, organizational identity, and turf wars get in our collective way! I’m grateful to get a chance to contribute to the conversation.

  • Mark Kling

    Good article questioning the role of the Backbone Organization as we learn more about how networks evolve. As the ED of a backbone organization, it seems to me that in addition to having an “exit strategy” a network could have an “evolution strategy”for the network and backbone organization. Exit strategy sounds win/lose when maybe we need to look at what the next step of evolution would be for the network, including (and not excluding) the backbone organization. I would posit the question this way: “Once the network has achieved success with a backbone organization supporting its members to more sustainability and ability to carry out their missions, what should the backbone organization’s new role be to continue to support its members as the network evolves?” The power imbalance mentioned in the article could be addressed via governance structure. The network governance documents could give the members true shared leadership as checks and balances to the backbone organization’s power. If the network members “own” the network via their governance structure, they can use their power to control the backbone organization (and the network) accordingly.