Tell the truth. Your collective impact effort for social change is no doubt collective—but does it really have impact?

If your experience is like mine (through five initiatives and counting), I suspect the answer is, “Not as much as it could.”

And I bet I know why: It’s your backbone.

Most nonprofits know the five central components of any cross-sector, collective impact initiative. The first four—a common agenda, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communication—may take work to accomplish, but they are not hard to understand. Basically, they spell out the meaning of the word "collaboration."

It’s the fifth one—a backbone organization—that’s really tough. A backbone organization is supposed to: guide vision and strategy, support aligned activities, establish shared measurement practices, build public will, advance policy, and mobilize funding.

This all sounds good, until it’s time to decide what it really means. I believe the problem comes down to this question: Is the backbone organization a facilitative body or an executive one?

The language of collective impact suggests that the answer is facilitative: The backbone will “guide,” “support,” “advance,” and so on. But the actual activities point toward executive: planning, organizing, and investing money where it will likely have the most impact. That’s what an executive does.

It would seem obvious that any enterprise needs an executive branch—people who are accountable and who can make the necessary decisions to deliver results.

But the prospect of an executive backbone is scary for many nonprofits, and it may cause them to dig in their heels, not because they don’t want to make progress, but because of a big, structural problem with nonprofit collaboration: a systemically driven misalignment of interests.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits survive not by collaborating, but by competing for grants and donations. Given how we fund nonprofits, collaboration often makes little sense. In collective impact, each prospective partner must divert scarce resources to a goal that may relate only partly to its core mission, while receiving little or no additional compensation in return. It’s an offer that’s almost all risk, with little or no clear reward. It shouldn't be surprising when we get nonprofit non-collaboration.

Too often, we mistake the reason for non-collaboration as complexity: “We want to collaborate, but it’s going to take a lot of study and discussion to figure out how.” The sector is rife with conferences, white papers, and flowcharts full of arrows and circles, all addressing collaboration as if it were an intellectual challenge.

But I believe this complexity is largely illusory. In reality, the challenge belongs to a different category, like many of our toughest challenges do: It’s simple, but hard.

When facing a simple-but-hard problem, we often use complexity as a shield, to avoid facing the problem directly. Consider the huge, profitable weight loss industry. It invites us to ponder (and pay for) a vast confusion of options: competing approaches, workout regimens, health club memberships, meal plans—it could take a lifetime to sort them out. All of that shields us from the simple-but-hard choice of eating right and getting some exercise. But when people don't lose weight, it's not because the challenge was complicated. It's because it was hard. And when they succeed, it’s usually because they change their lifestyle in a way that feels rewarding, instead of punitive.

Similarly with nonprofit collaboration, it would happen more if only it didn’t hurt so much.

Through its five-part model, collective impact seeks to solve the misalignment that produces the pain of collaboration. But if that leads to the backbone gaining the executive power it’s going to need, the re-alignment can break down. Nonprofit partners may see it as just another threat—an entity charged with taking away the autonomy they feel they need to serve their mission or simply to survive. Hence, some of the objections to collective impact, which characterize it as top-down, non-inclusive, or even Borg-like.

Given concerns like these, even people who have signed on to a collective impact initiative may feel reluctant to move ahead too fast.

What to do? The answer is to get rid of the “hard” in “simple but hard,” and make it obvious to collective impact partners how their lives are about to get better, not worse. This means ensuring that:

  1. They are included in the design of the backbone organization so that it is (and so that everyone sees it as) legitimately constituted.
  2. They understand how collective impact works.
  3. They understand how to pursue collective impact funding opportunities successfully.
  4. They see collaboration as better than going it alone—as offering less risk and more reward, instead of the reverse.

That last one is where the rubber hits the road: Collective impact organizers need to remove the true barrier to collaboration and replace it with a benefit.

Is that possible? It should be, if—as so many of us believe—collective impact actually is more productive than working in silos. Consider a joint venture in the private sector. Its promise is: “We can create more profit together than separately, and we will share the extra.” That’s what makes participants sign up—and agree to a single (backbone-like) management structure.

A collective impact initiative is like a joint venture, except with a goal of “more change” in place of “more profit.” But the promise of collective impact may look a lot less attractive to participants: “We can create more change together than separately—but each of us might end up worse off.”

In economic terms, the problem is that the people who produce the productivity gain in a collective impact effort don’t benefit from it. If you translate that to language more common to the nonprofit sector, you might say collective impact is “top-down” or “non-inclusive.”

But we can fix that. There’s no extra profit to share, of course, but there is less spending by the funders of the initiative, who are getting bigger results per dollar. Sharing some of this productivity gain with collective impact partners would help motivate participation. Funders might do this by reserving some of their up-front investment for funding increments, possibly tied to results.

Can we remove all the pain from a transition to collective impact? Probably not—all progress involves disruption and not all participants will be able to demonstrate effectiveness. But we can make it a lot less painful if we do it right. That means having a strong backbone—one that makes the rest of the body stronger too.

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