The Backbone Organisation

A defining feature of the Collective Impact approach is the role of a backbone organisation – a separate organisation dedicated to coordinating the various dimensions and collaborators involved in the initiative.  Supporting backbone infrastructure is essential to ensuring the collective impact effort maintains momentum and facilitates impact.

Functions of a backbone organisation

There are six functions of a backbone organisation – see below – along with key indicators to measure how well these functions are performed. Backbone_Effectiveness_Indicators

Misperceptions of a backbone organisation

The role and functions of backbone organisations can often be misunderstood, particularly in early stage Collective Impact initiatives.  The most common misperception are:

  • images-4The backbone organisation sets the agenda for the group
  • The backbone organisation drives the solutions
  • The backbone organisation receives all the funding
  • The role of backbone can be self appointed rather than selected by the community
  • That the role of backbone isn’t fundamentally different from “business as usual” in terms of staffing, time, and resources

A backbone organisation is NOT the start of a Collective Impact initiative

This is, perhaps, the biggest misperception of all.  And for good reason. All Collective Impact initiatives develop in phases. In some cases, a backbone organisation exists from the very start, in Phase 1; in others it is created in Phase 3.  These options are depicted in the diagram below with the question: “Start here?”.


In cases where a backbone organisation exists at the very start (Phase 1), it is likely that the organisation already has the trust of the community and are given ‘permission’ to perform the early functions of a backbone organisation.

In other cases, a group of people from different organisations start the initiative without a formal backbone organisation in place.  In such cases, the functions of a backbone organisation required in an early stage Collective Impact initiative are shared between the core collaborators and other early adopting organisations.

watch out

Moving too quickly to claiming the position of a backbone organisation or creating a new organisation can have a harmful effect on the collaborative initiative.    Backbone organisations need to earn a ‘licence to operate’ within a collaboration and community – which won’t be granted to organisations who insert themselves into the role. Similarly, focusing too early on incorporating and formalising a new organisation to become the backbone will distract the collaborators away from the core work of generating ideas and dialog (Phase 1) and initiating action (Phase 2).

Types of backbone organisation

Backbone organisations can take multiple forms.  The table below describes some of these forms and the pros and cons of each.


 For more information on backbone organisations see Building the Backbone Infrastructure.