Getting people from across the public, private, and civil sectors to effectively work together comes down to one fundamental question: how do you get people to work with you who don’t work for you? Humans excel at getting people to work with us who do work for us. Hierarchy, command-and-control, contractual relationships, and volumes of management theory tell us how to make these kinds of relationships work. Multi-sector collaborations face a host of different challenges because the people involved don’t work for each other. They volunteer their time, talent, and treasure. Altruism may bring them together, but it rarely holds them together.

Most multi-sector collaborations excel at vision and fail in execution. They suffer when the original altruistic vision meets the hard reality of the daily grind. A gap opens up between collective strategy formulation and collective strategy execution. To address this gap, other researchers have already articulated the need for a “backbone organization” to hold the center on collective strategy. While that research focused on making the case for why multi-stakeholder collaborations need backbone organizations, our research focuses on the “how” of running a successful backbone organization. We discuss how a Partnership Engagement System (PES) made up of specific principles and practices of backbone organizations, working in concert with Executive Leadership, can maintain alignment, drive impact, and create continuous learning throughout the life of a collaboration.

Click here to download the CollaborateUp Field Guide on Backbone Organizations to learn more about how to drive impact in multi-stakeholder initiatives.