Build the backbone infrastructure

Given the intensive effort required in Phase 3 of a Collective Impact initiative, it is critical that the required backbone capacity and infrastructure is in place

Backbone funding

It is essential that the backbone organisation be adequately funded in order to successfully support the development of the initiative in Phase 3. In terms of understanding what resources are needed, backbone organisations primarily require funding and in-kind contributions for:

  • People – see below
  • Infrastructure for data and continuous learning – see below.

In terms of raising funds for backbone functions and organisations, collaboratives may find funders hesitant because their work is functionally more like overhead than program work. The impact is indirect and the lines of accountability are less clear.  Nonetheless, collaboratives need to identify local stakeholders in the short-term who are interested in sustaining the collaborative throughout Phase 3 – organise for impact.  Three arguments that can be used to increase the appeal of backbone funding:

  1. images-5That traditional funding schemes in individual programs have so far proved unsuccessful in solving large scale complex problems; investment in the supporting infrastructure is also necessary.
  2. Compared to the pool of resources effectively leveraged by the backbone, the cost of setting up the backbone organisation is minimal.
  3. The cost savings resulting from streamlining the actions of multiple partners towards a common goal offset the investment in backbone organisations.

Lastly, it is highly important that backbone organisations are not seen or perceived to be taking funding away from collaborating organisations.  In the ideal, new money is raised for the backbone that would not otherwise have been available to the collaborators.  Philanthropic foundations are often sources of this type of neutral funding, as is surplus from social enterprises.  Another option is to raise some or all of the funds from the collaborators themselves.

Some examples of how Collective Impact initiatives have mobilised funding for backbone functions can be found here.

Backbone People


Effective leadership plays an important role in the success of a backbone organisation.  The authors of Collective Impact, Kania and Kramer (2011) assert that Adaptive leadership is at the heart of the collective impact approach.  Adaptive leadership skills include:

  • The capacity to raise awareness about the issue at hand, and the importance of taking action quickly;
  • The ability to highlight both challenges and opportunities in any situation; and
  • The capacity to act as a negotiator and intermediary between the various organisations that are part of the initiative, as well as external stakeholders.



It is essential that the Collective Impact initiative work to secure the right leadership.  Collaborators must select a lead convener with the trust and respect of the community; one that is both sufficiently neutral and has the ability to convene a broad group of decision-makers.

“Backbones must balance the tension between coordinating and maintaining accountability, while staying behind the scenes to establish collective ownership”


Dedicated capacity is required to support the day-to-day work of the initiative and help move the agenda forward. The extent of this capacity can range from two people to more than seven.  In many cases, this capacity exists within a single organisation, but it can also be shared across organisations. In general, the roles  required are:

  • imgres-8Leader and Convener: Brings key leaders to the collaborative and moves the group towards a cohesive, collective strategic direction
  • Director and Facilitator: Manages the day-to-day work to support the community collaborative; accountable for getting things done between meetings. Guides the collaborative‘s meetings, with a specific eye towards moving the group to consensus and action.This person often has deep skills related to strategic planning, process improvement and/or stakeholder management
  • Data analyst: Supports continuous learning on the technical side by aggregating and analysing data, finding trends and reporting back to groups. Rather than build this capacity, some collaboratives partner with researchers or an outside firm to play this role
  • Policy analyst: Monitors policy news and changes relevant to the collaborative’s work, reports back to the collaborative on policy wins and obstacles, and helps determine opportunities for the collaborative to have influence on policy decisions
  • Administrative support: Coordinates all meetings across the collaborative, ensuring that the groups are on track and committee meetings are run consistently
  • Communications lead / Development director: Manages external communications to maximise the impact of the collaborative’s work; ensures that the collaborative speaks as one entity when appropriate, coordinates with partners to ensure that their independent communications are aligned with the collaborative’s agenda and maintains and develops relationships with funders

In smaller collaboratives, one individual may fill many positions. Ultimately, the number depends on the breadth of the issues, complexity of the collaborative’s structure and available funding.

Backbone infrastructure for data and continuous learning

Using data to set priorities, drive the collaborative process, continually learn and make decisions are key characteristics of successful Collective Impact initiatives. Data is used to:

  • continuous learningUnderstand the problem or issues that a collaborative is trying to address.
  • Gain alignment around what the data is saying.
  • Make specific decisions about the collaborative’s agenda and roadmap.
  • Learn about what is working and not working.
  • Track the progress against community-wide goals, using relevant metrics.
  • Publicly highlight successes to increase community and stakeholder backing.
  • Attract funding by showing progress.


Successful initiatives routinely use data to align resources behind what is shown to work. Collaboratives may compile data from existing sources or do their own data collection. Either way, it must be relevant, up to date, and accurate.

Backbone organisation must either build and operate their own data-collection systems or rely on partners, such as school districts or health departments.  The data collection systems can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet, which tracks progress over time; or as complex as shared data systems that allow schools, service providers, and other parties to jointly report on their work with an individual. What ever the case, the backbone organisation must build the data infrastructure that allows the collaboration to continually learn and track progress.

Recommended reading

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