Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact: Part 4

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) and the nonprofit consulting firm FSG have partnered to understand and evaluate the role of backbone organizations in collective impact efforts. The final post in a four-part series describes what’s next for our work. In our first three posts, we defined the roles of backbone organizations in collective impact, laid out the parameters for this evaluation, and shared what we have learned thus far about specific value-added activities that backbone organizations share in common across sectors.

What Next? Leading and Learning into the Future

When GCF invested in supporting the core budgets of six local backbone organizations over a period of five years, the Foundation also undertook a broader effort to support evaluation and develop a community of practice for these grant recipients. Since January 2012, GCF and FSG have been focused on launching the latter effort.

A key question guiding our evaluation has been: How and to what extent are backbone organizations effective catalysts for achieving community-level progress? In FSG's previous work on collective impact, reported in "Channeling Change,"  the “intangibles” of the work—a key one is leadership identification and development—can be incredibly important in driving the progress of an initiative. In our baseline data collection, stakeholders shared with FSG their deep convictions and heartfelt sentiments about the backbone leaders they know best. In aggregate, the synthesized feedback confirmed a compelling picture of the importance of effective leadership among backbone organizations and the potential of collective impact overall. (See text box)

If you are considering how to undertake or support a collective impact initiative, one fundamental truth about backbone effectiveness is that its leader can make or break the organization’s success. This component of the evaluation captures some of the intangible “secret sauce” that helps us understand the backbone role going forward.


As the GCF-FSG team looks back on our process, we heavily front-loaded the first six months of developing the evaluation and technical assistance aspect of GCF’s funding initiative in order to ensure that it was built on a solid foundation. We established a community of practice with the cohort of backbone organizations. We developed the common theory of change across backbone organizations, as well as individual logic models. We conducted the baseline assessment of each backbone organization. And we established a shared learning agenda to provide ongoing technical assistance. Now we can step back, take a deep breath, and reflect on what’s next.

For GCF, the Foundation plans to continue to “learn in public”, as Beth Kanter says, by sharing the lessons we learned with local funders and other community partners. One way GCF plans to do this is by convening a local community conversation around collective impact this fall. In Cincinnati, the community has been so busy doing collective impact that leaders haven’t actually stepped back to reflect on the mechanics or importance of the work. The purpose of the community convening is to make sure that everyone is on the same page about what collective impact is, to share how GCF and the backbone organizations are using the model to drive change, and to discuss and solidify everyone’s role in advancing the work. GCF will bring together the boards, volunteers, and partners of GCF and other funders, as well as the backbone organizations, to establish a common understanding of collective impact.

GCF also plans to share this learning with the field, initially via publications, such as Stanford Social Innovation Review, social media channels, conference presentations, and perhaps ultimately through a more formal white paper. Besides sharing what we have learned, GCF also needs to hone its communications and messaging about the approach. The foundation needs to succinctly answer the questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What do we expect success to look like? GCF is off to a good start answering the first question through a slide presentation and video that adopts a rowing metaphor to communicate what the model looks like, and specifically, to provide greater detail about each core tenet in the model. We found that this subject matter is complicated and tends to be very heavy on jargon, so the foundation will continue to make an effort to improve in its own communications. Together with FSG, GCF has also developed a reporting template and dashboard that will help easily communicate results of the funding initiative.

GCF’s backbone grant recipients are already using what they’ve learned to inform and improve their work. Each has taken results back to their governing leadership, partners, and core supporters to discuss the implications their evaluation results have for their work. One backbone organization is challenging its current evaluation process and looking to collect more granular, neighborhood-level data. It has also researched best practices on effective communications strategies to show both quantitative and qualitative results, and has hired a communications team to develop a communications plan. Other backbone organizations are using the six core activities framework (see part 2) to help align their organizational structure around each activity area, and ensure that key activities are otherwise properly resourced.

Less than six months into the development of the community of practice, we are already seeing synergy across groups. Vision 2015, Agenda 360, Partners for a Competitive Workforce, and the Strive Partnership are working together on a labor market study called “2020 Job Outlook.” Four backbone organizations will share resources—leadership, connections, and cash—to develop a dataset that can drive the region’s collective vision and goals on job training and educational attainment. This example shows true partnership with a common agenda, driving a high impact regional initiative together.

The role of GCF in supporting collective impact also continues to evolve and grow. GCF provides support primarily through its grantmaking and capacity building support of backbone organizations. It has also been a partner in mobilizing funding by aligning its community investment framework with widely adopted community initiatives. And GCF has collaborated with United Way of Greater Cincinnati to lead the community dialogue around further refinement of shared community outcomes and measures FSG plans to expand the depth of its support for those groups pursuing collective impact by further exploring what it means to be a backbone organization. FSG also has other research efforts underway to develop insights on shared measurement, the role of funders, and the role that collective impact plays in addressing the complexity of social change.

With this incredible cohort of backbone leaders fully engaged in a community of practice, we now embark upon our next phase of work. We hope that the rationale, process, and results of our experience to date will resonate with other funders and practitioners who are making similar investments and facing similar opportunities and challenges. Creating large-scale systemic change via collective impact is a long-term proposition. Both GCF and FSG are dedicated to providing continued knowledge and tools for Cincinnati and other communities to help speed progress along the way.

Finally, we are very interested in hearing your perspectives on the work in Cincinnati.

  • If you consider yourself a backbone organization, does our articulation of the backbone role resonate?
  • If you’re a funder of a backbone organization, does our story help to give you more confidence in investing in backbone organizations?
  • If you’re a collective impact partner or direct service provider, do you see value in the backbone activities we’ve outlined?
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  • BY Kimberley Jutze

    ON July 21, 2012 03:10 PM

    Thanks to the authors for sharing this article and the work that they have done on articulating the value of backbone organizations in collective impact.

    As a direct service provider, I can see the value of backbone organizations in helping partner organizations achieve mutually reinforcing goals.  While there is a case to be made for a backbone organization that can remain focused on an overarching goal while also supporting the work of its partners, they may also face challenges in obtaining funding.  This may be an issue in cases where donors are not interested in supporting an intermediary between itself and the organization working directly on the social challenge being addressed.

    I’m wondering if attention has or is being given to the adoption of sustainable revenue models by backbone organizations, as well as their partners, so that they are less reliant on donations and grants.

  • BY Shiloh Turner

    ON August 1, 2012 06:24 PM

    Hi Kimberley,

    You raise a great point that is top-of-mind for GCF. Obviously, we see the value of backbone organizations,  but even when making our case for support with our board and volunteers, we were faced with the challenge of communicating the value-add they provide!  That is precisely why we felt this was an important community leadership role for the foundation. 

    Once the field is better able to quantify the value of a backbone organization, and clearly articulate the case, we believe it will lead to a stronger sustainability model. It’s not sexy philanthropy; it’s not what I call ‘shiny object’ philanthropy, but it is important if we really want to make progress.

    I’m very pleased to hear your support of the backbone organization as a direct service provider.  It would help if other direct service providers would also lend their voices of support.

    I would challenge other backbones to post a response to the sustainability issue. What do you see as the most viable long-term sustainability model?

  • BY Shari Edelstein

    ON August 17, 2012 08:42 AM

    Thank you for the important information that you are sharing with us as you develop the Collective Impact model.  As a foundation, we are using this to guide a process with local Jewish organizations.  We have two specific questions that we’d like to learn more about: (1) What experience have you had with foundations operating as the backbone organization and (2) questions around membership models (e.g. members and partners, concentric circles).  We have a group that has been meeting for over a year and while we would be interested in seeing the membership expand, they are reluctant to change the composition of the group. 
    Would love to hear from you.

  • BY Bill Barberg

    ON August 23, 2012 09:25 AM

    There is a new group for sharing information and discussions on Collective Impact that should become a valuable source of ideas, best practices and more.  It is part of a new Website ( backed by many major organizations (  Create a free account (and gain access to valuable data, mapping capabilities and other things that would typically cost many thousands of dollars), and then go to the “Engage” section to find the groups.  You’ll see the Collective Impact group there.  Please join and become an active participant.

  • BY Jamie Johnson

    ON August 23, 2013 07:05 AM

    Great article!  Congratulations on your clarity of focus and capacity to see a dynamic that many would not have seen.

    I am directing a “backbone organization” that works internationally and then here in the US and our work and focus was well-represented by your words.

    Our work grew into being a backbone organization as we found success in incubating local youth, family and community development organizations and then morphed ourselves into a becoming what these local, indigenously-led organizations would most need to help them maximize their impact. 

    Could you give any tips on what funders are most focused on working with backbone organizations?

  • Excellent and helpful series of articles!  In our small rural village of Delburne, Alberta, Canada, we partnered with Tamarack on their 1000 Conversations campaign and engaged approximately 1/2 of our population from all sides of the street to share their hopes & dreams for the future.  A unique spin on the initiative was the incorporation of the “Belonging: DELBURNE” photo project which intentionally and effectively employed art as a medium to increase community engagement and build social capital via deep heart level connections. 

    To date, the degree of shared community ownership/responsibility around identifying vital projects and collaboratively action planning for results has been solid. Thus, I find our project slightly in reverse to those of the cohort groups in that building public will was the first step, which lead to a grassroots, community owned vision.  We are now looking to create a backbone to support community members as they move forward on vital projects.  Trying to figure out how to create structure without it becoming “institutional” and thus undermining grassroots empowerment.

    Any ideas?

  • Rukan Nasri's avatar

    BY Rukan Nasri

    ON February 27, 2015 05:11 AM

    Your work is great. I think most of the aspects you’ve mentioned are very important.  I have questions though:

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of the backbone organization’s shared measurement systems and i would like to know how you avoid collective negative impact. As I come from an environmental view on the world I would like to know how and if you report on sustainability issues.
    I also would like to know how your innovation process is designed to face knew challenges. I am asking because I have the fear that a centralized management of action leads to less awareness of , yet unknown, problems through trust.
    In particular I think that shared measurement systems are only valuable to a certain extent and should leave lots of room for self designing and it should request a certain amount of self reflection to find out what indicators suite the most for the individual participants. This should lead to a more complex understanding of the challenges we face. In the end there might be a trade of between collective impact and the complex understanding of sustainable change if too many organizations stick to the same rules. As well it might decrease the capability of recognizing rising problems early.
    It might be that I think to narrowly, but I would like to see that backbone organizations are the sum of individuals and not shaping individuals to become a sum.
    thank you for reading.

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