• 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.

  • Jennifer Juster

    Thank you for this piece, Danielle. You raise some really important points about the role of the backbone. At the Collective Impact Forum (a partnership between FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions), I have talked with many communities who have faced these struggles. Many of the challenges that you pose, however, present themselves when the backbone role is not implemented in the way that it is intended and the staff of the backbone work in ways inconsistent with the spirit of the role and the principles of collective impact.

    In the work FSG and the Collective Impact Forum do with the field, we emphasize that the backbone is not a “top-down management structure” but rather a facilitative leader to serve the group in ways such as a guide, facilitator, convener, motivator, and process manager. The roles of the backbone we typically articulate include: 1) Guide vision and strategy; 2) Support aligned activities; 3) Establish shared measurement practices; 4) Build public will; 5) Cultivate Community Engagement and Ownership; and 6) Mobilize resources for initiative partners. As described in the 2015 blog “Three Misconceptions around Collective Impact,” “There is sometimes the belief that a backbone organization sets the agenda for the collaborative and holds the ‘power’ for the group’s decisions. In reality, the backbone should be playing a facilitative, servant-leader role—guiding the decisions of the collaborative, based on the expertise and input of a cross-sector steering committee and input from a broad range of partners and community members.” A strong backbone will create a sense of shared accountability across all participants.

    You also raise a good point about whether there is evidence of collective impact’s effectiveness. That is precisely why the Collective Impact Forum commissioned an independent research study by ORS Impact and the Spark Policy Institute. Their thorough 124 page study, “When Collective Impact Has an Impact,” was just published a few weeks ago. Through year-long study of 25 sites across the US and Canada, the research team looked to answer a range of questions, including “To what extent and under what conditions does the collective impact approach contribute to systems and population changes?” Although attribution is always challenging, the research team used “process tracing,” a rigorous analytical process that examines multiple possible drivers of change to assess and quantify the degree of contribution that can be connected to each hypothesis or cause.

    A key finding of the report is that “the role of the collective impact initiatives in contributing to population change alongside other efforts or enablers is a critical and valuable aspect of social change.” They also found that 20 of the 25 collective impact sites studied had achieved population change on at least one outcome. The researchers also conducted eight deep-dive site visits, and in all of these cases the process tracing methodology determined that collective impact “undoubtedly contributed” to the population change. In five of these cases it was found to be an essential factor in the change, and in three cases the researchers found that there was no other plausible explanation for why the population-level change occurred.

    In addition, the research team found that “Backbone support and the common agenda were fundamental to the study sites: maturity in these two conditions was related to having achieved a variety of outcomes (early, systems and population change).” This in depth research found that, when collective impact initiatives have achieved systems change and population change, the backbones “often play more of a convening, facilitating, and coordinating role in a way that empowers partners to guide and implement the work rather than doing all the work themselves.”

    We share the author’s worry about situations when the backbone is implemented in ways inconsistent with the intent. We too worry when “the backbone model lets members off the hook;” the backbone should facilitate shared leadership across a steering committee and working groups, who carry out the work in service of a common agenda. We also worry when the backbone is the “proxy voice of an initiative”, and encourage backbone staff to lead from behind the scenes. And we also share enthusiasm for the recommendation to invest not only in the backbone, but also network members more broadly.

    Finally, we wholeheartedly agree that all work is context-specific. Collective impact structures and processes are definitely not the solution in all cases, nor are they the only form of effective collaboration. There is no single or infallible approach to social change; collective impact is merely one useful way of working. In many situations, other network forms and structures are more appropriate and we hope that practitioners are thoughtful about when – and when not—to adopt a collective impact approach. For practitioners thinking through this question – this webinar some advice on how to consider whether or not the collective impact approach makes sense: Is Collective Impact Right for You? (http://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/resources/collective-impact-right-approach-you)

  • Russ Gaskin

    A bit late to the party but I found both Danielle’s article and the comments fascinating. Both Jennifer and Chris (CivicCollab) refer to this as an implementation issue rather than a structural problem. I agree with that.

    The basic problem as I see it is that most people in backbone roles are naturally good problems solvers and program developers, but they aren’t experienced in process design and facilitation. So even if they have a genuine commitment to collaboration, when things get confusing, uncertain, or simply aren’t moving ahead effectively, they (like all of us) fall back on their strengths–that is, they take back the reins.

    And that’s symptomatic of a deeper problem: the lack of recognition of good process design and facilitation as being valuable skills that need to be built within backbone teams. Just like we carry a myth of self-organization, we also carry a myth that the process will work as long as we have smart people in the room. Clearly, experience doesn’t support that.