Should You Build or Buy a Backbone?

FSG’s Mark Kramer has five key “collective impact” principles – useful rules of thumb for building and managing collective impact initiatives:

  1. Develop a common agenda
  2. Collectively agree on a set of progress measures (linked to the common agenda)
  3. Put in place reinforcing activities
  4. Communicate
  5. Institute a backbone organization

Much has already been written on how to start a collective impact program. This article will focus on how to stand up and run the backbone organization. After you’ve come up with the idea for your collective impact program and developed a set of common goals and reinforcing activities you want to work on together, what’s next? How do you actually put in place a backbone organization to coordinate it?

Distinguishing a few concepts first will help. First, how the backbone organization itself differs from the partnership’s leadership. Second, whether to “build or buy” a backbone.


Brain vs. Nervous System: The difference between leadership and backbone.

If the leaders (the convener, donor, founding organizations, governing board, management team, etc.) of a given collaboration are the brain, the backbone is the nervous system. The brain comes up with the overall strategic direction and makes decisions. The nervous system communicates and coordinates these decisions among the various organs and body parts, the various partners and stakeholders involved in the collaboration.


Build vs. Buy: Deciding how to put your backbone together.

There are really two decisions here:

  1. Should the convener, donor, or founding organizations provide the backbone or should it be separate from them?
  2. Should you hire paid staff to run the backbone or should you hire an outside professional backbone organization?

As with most things, the short answer is, it depends. It comes down to a question of professionalism, experience, and bandwidth. If the leadership (the convener, donor, founding organizations, governing board, management team, etc.) have professional experience and adequate bandwidth to perform all the backbone functions, then yes, they can. In our experience, most choose not to, though. On the question of build vs. buy, it really comes down to a bandwidth and resourcing function. Making multiple full time staff hires incurs a lot of fixed cost. Hiring an outside firm often comes with greater actual backbone experience and keeps the cost relatively variable, allowing you to adjust the support to your actual needs. But we’re biased: we provide backbone services. So this is a decision you should weigh for yourself.

With that background, what should you look for when building/staffing a backbone organization? To Kramer’s principles, we’ve added a layer of detail on what to look for and some guidance on integrating a backbone organization function. Here are the Dos and Don’ts of putting in place an effective backbone.


Experience Facilitating/Managing a Common Agenda

Do hire or build a backbone organization with experience to act as an independent facilitator, ideally with experience developing and managing common agendas on your issue. Don’t hire only technical experts. People often hire technical experts to lead the coordination of collective impact initiatives. This has the obvious upside of having someone who already knows your issue. It has several big disadvantages, though, including:

  • Conflict with technical leads. Remember: backbone = nervous system, not brain. If the people in the backbone organization start trying to perform the technical leads’ functions, conflict will inevitably result.
  • Lack of independence. Often, the backbone needs to help leadership sort out conflicting views among the partners. If the backbone has become too involved in technical matters, it loses its independence and the trust of the partners.
  • Inability to support evaluation. If the backbone loses its independence and/or the trust of the partners, it suffers a blow to its role in collecting, reporting, and analyzing common progress measures. We do not recommend the backbone necessarily be the independent evaluator. That role ultimately stays with leadership or with an independent auditor/evaluator. The backbone function includes dispassionately gathering, reporting, and analyzing. Not making decisions.
  • Diminished capacity to create a “learning organization.” Gathering and sharing appropriate practices among the partners makes up one of the main purposes of monitoring and evaluation. If it loses its ability to support leadership’s role as an independent evaluator, the ability to share learning across various partner-led initiatives also gets compromised.

As an example, we’ve worked on a large public-private partnership involving partners physically spread out across multiple countries and time zones. Each partner had an existing mission that overlapped with the collective mission, but their individual missions periodically conflicted with each other’s missions – some organizations had an “advocacy/activist” mission placing them at odds with the companies in the partnership. At times, these conflicts rose to the level of nearly breaking the partnership apart. We found ourselves acting as mediator and facilitator. If we had over-played our technical expertise, we would have quickly lost the trust of the technical leads and found ourselves unable to help leadership hold the coalition together.

In addition, because the backbone staff can't be everywhere, it helps if the partners undergo a bit of collaboration training. Staffing the backbone with skilled facilitation and collaboration trainers can help transfer these skills.

Conclusion: Staff the backbone with skilled professionals that have experience serving as independent facilitators on your issue and that can transfer these skills to the partners.


Able to Support “Failing Fast, Failing Forward”

Do staff the backbone organization with people experienced in both maintaining the current set of measures and reinforcing activities as well as adapting them as things change. Don’t assume issues or the operating environment will remain fixed throughout the life of the partnership. Rarely if ever in any of the collective impact efforts in which we’ve played a role have the initial set of activities and measures lasted more than 12 months. Once the partners begin working together, they need to quickly adapt their activities and the associated measurements.

In our experience, we’ve seen multiple partnerships simply persist in the face of countervailing data. Partly out of fear of losing donor trust and confidence if they admitted failure, the partners just kept forging ahead. Experience in coordinating multi-sector partnership decision-making and co-creation techniques can help avoid this trap by helping leadership enroll and re-enroll the partners and donors in the common agenda.

The concept of “fail fast, fail forward” has become quite popular. But what does it actually mean? It means the ability to quickly learn from mistakes and adapt your approach. The backbone needs to support partners as they “fail fast, fail forward” and actively learn from their mistakes. That means the backbone needs to be able to “speak truth to power” to both the technical leads and the donors. We’ve often seen technical leads worry about how the donor will react to changes in direction or fret about losing funding if they change course. The backbone needs to support the technical leads’ abilities to make the case for course changes by supplying the unbiased evidence from the existing progress measures and quickly come up with new progress measures for the new strategic direction.

Unlike single organizations, multi-organization collaborations face the repeated challenge of adapting to new challenges while also having to keep the collaborators “on board.” Sudden changes in direction can threaten the founding principles of the collaboration and cause some partners to say, “I’m out.” Sometimes, that’s ok and the partnership may “outgrow” some of its founders. At the same time, the backbone needs to know how to gracefully exit some partners without threatening the viability of the whole collaboration. It also needs to know how to quickly onboard new partners. This is a particular challenge with private sector companies that may have sudden changes in funding or leadership or that may lose patience with tedious governance and decision-making.

To keep up the pace of adaptation, the backbone needs to have experience in co-creation methods and in structuring and managing multi-sector collaborations. Using co-creation methods wisely, especially when the partners have to suddenly adapt to new circumstances, enables them to adapt while holding the partnership together. The emphasis in the last sentence is on wisely using these methods, though. Not everything requires consensus or co-creation. Knowing when it does and when it does not is the trick. This topic often gets labeled as “governance” – the structured way in which decisions get made. The backbone needs to know how to structure and document decision-making processes and it also needs to know when and how to “go off-script” and help leadership make decisions without tying everyone up in bureaucracy.

Conclusion: Staff the backbone with people skilled at coordinating rapid adaptation and effective multi-sector decision-making.


Skilled at Strategic Partnership Communications

Do let individual partners get down to work. Don't let them get stove-piped or revert to old patterns of behavior. Focus drives productivity. Collaboration amplifies impact. To get stuff done, individual partners will need to buckle down and focus on their piece of the collective impact strategy. This focus, can lead to the very stove-piping and isolated activity the collective impact program intended to avoid. One of the main functions of the backbone, acting as the partnership’s nervous system, is to bridge this conundrum by providing adequate connection and coordination without distracting the partners from focusing and getting stuff done.

The backbone needs to contain people skilled at effective external and internal communications. This involves the ability to succinctly summarize complex technical topics and convey them in short text, graphics, and diagrams. The backbone staff should have the ability to briefly interact with the various parts of the collaboration and pull together these brief communications pieces to share among the internal partners as well as the external stakeholders. Doing so will improve the ability of the partners to learn from one another and keep their reinforcing activities well-coordinated and actually reinforcing of one another.

Conclusion: Ensure the backbone includes skilled internal and external communicators.



Whether you decide to build or buy a backbone, following these rules of thumb will help ensure it lives up to its potential and helps your partners live up to theirs:

  • Ensure the backbone can act as an independent facilitator/coordinator. While backbone staff may have experience on your issue, they should stay out of the way of the technical leads. Ideally they should work to transfer collaboration skills to the partners as well.
  • Charge the backbone with supporting the partners as they “fail fast, fail forward” by ensuring backbone staff can advise the technical leads on how to quickly adapt their reinforcing activities and progress measures to emerging issues while also keeping the partnership together.
  • The backbone needs to know how to structure governance models and decision-making processes to adapt them to emerging issues as the partnership itself evolves. Especially if engaging the private sector, the backbone needs to know how to advise leadership on how to quickly adapt so as not to lose the private sector’s interest and active engagement.
  • Make sure the backbone staff have demonstrated skills in succinctly summarizing and communicating complex technical topics in ways that internal partners and external stakeholders can quickly digest and absorb.


By doing those three things, you will increase your probability of success.

By Richard Crespin, CEO of CollaborateUp


A version of this article was originally published by PYXERA Global Engagement Forum Online.

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