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? We 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 relationships work.

Multi-stakeholder collaborations (MSCs), however, face a host of different challenges because the people involved don’t work for each other and are under no obligation to cooperate. They volunteer their time, talent, and treasure. Altruism may bring them together, but rarely holds them together.

Most MSCs 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 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 MSCs need backbone organizations, our research focuses on the how of running a successful backbone organization.

In this article, we present six key principles for backbone organizations to follow to maintain alignment, drive impact, and create continuous learning throughout the life of a collaboration. Within each principle, we describe one specific practice. A full listing of our 27 recommended practices is available in our manual for practitioners, “Backbone Organizations: A Field Guide.”

Consider a tale of two partnerships. Both set out to tackle a big problem. Both unite companies big and small, national and local governments, and leaders from across civil society. Both have clearly written strategies, well-organized governance documents, and detailed metrics. One falters within a year of founding. The other goes on to lead a transformational conversation over decades. Why the difference? The high-functioning partnership closed the gap between vision and execution by building itself around the following six principles.

Principle 1: Clarity of Purpose

Many MSCs expend great effort to identify and ground the partners in a common purpose when they first launch. Over time, the overarching vision and purpose of a collaboration can and will change. MSCs need someone to maintain a constant drumbeat, ensuring that all partners maintain a clear and consistent connection to the overarching purpose of the partnership.

Like the relationship between the brain and the body’s nervous system, a partnership’s leaders (the brain) must craft and constantly articulate the common purpose as part of their job. The backbone organization (the nervous system) should provide the glue that keeps this connection strong, carrying the signals generated by the brain to the individual partners.

Facilitating effective communications across the partners provide one way of keeping that connection strong. Great partnership communications should leave partners feeling freed, fueled, and inspired, giving them a basis for learning and action. There’s a reason why publications like TheSkimm and BuzzFeed get more shares than a family holiday e-newsletter. They use humor, sharp writing, and edgy formats which encourage people to easily and widely share their content. The backbone organization should do likewise for internal and external communications.

Principle 2: Driving Long-Term Momentum and Growth

The American Society of Association Executives Center for Association Leadership conducts an annual survey of people who join organizations to find the answer to one basic question: Why do people join? Year in and year out the answer remains: To be part of something bigger than themselves. MSCs offer individual participants exactly that, but to keep and hold their interest and involvement, partnerships need to constantly attract money and people to sustain action and impact.

Human sustainability and financial sustainability are inextricably linked. MSCs that fail to provide adequate individual and collective growth and development—continuous opportunities to experiment, learn, grow, and innovate—run out of steam. MSCs that fail to demonstrate a personal and collective return on investment—a return on investment (ROI) on people’s time and money—run out of money. The backbone organization should ensure the MSC succeeds by growing and expanding its influence and continually attracting the people and money that amplify its impact.

To do so, we recommend creating a ROI narrative: a concise story that explain how the partnership creates value for individual partners and how it measurably improves the condition of the people it aims to help. The backbone organization should do the work of gathering the facts and figures and converting them into vignettes the partners can use in presentations, in digital media, and in fundraising meetings. The ROI narrative provides a compact time capsule of the partnership’s value, with facts and figures arrayed in a readily retold story with the potential of going viral.

Principle 3:  Strong Partnership Identity

What are the first few things the founders of a new country create? Often before they finish the constitution or name leaders to important posts, they pick a name and design a flag. A shared name, symbols, and language bind people together. The same is true for partnerships. Give the MSC a name, design a logo, develop a unique culture and identity. A backbone organization should be the keeper and steward of the MSC’s identity.

Establishing the MSC’s identity, while necessary, is insufficient. Partnerships can be especially tricky because they ask us to create and maintain dual loyalties, staying loyal to our home organization and having additional loyalty to the MSC. Not only is this complicated; it almost inevitably leads to conflict when the needs of the home organization come up against the needs of the MSC. Great MSCs harness this energy, growing from it rather than being weakened by it.

But how do MSCs create a shared identity? Great teams are made, not born. It takes work, especially in a partnership where the individual participants from the different partner organizations will come and go with some frequency. The backbone organization should guide partners to learn how to put their issues on the table and to use straight talk (the ability to speak politely but directly) to discuss them. The backbone organization should also enable partners to actively work on the partnership, improving the way the partners work together. This is distinguished from working in the partnership where partners work together to solve the common problem or advance the common purpose. Both are essential parts of partnership success.

Principle 4: Connected and Aligned People and Activities

In any endeavor, specialization drives productivity while coordination multiplies impact. In partnerships, a tension exists between specialization and coordination. Partners often want to just get down to work without the bother of coordination. But MSCs need to coordinate across multiple tasks, teams, and organizations to maximize impact and eliminate duplication of effort. On the other hand, over-coordination can lead to partners feeling burdened by unnecessary reporting and stuck in boring and unproductive meetings that benefit the coordinators without advancing the mission.

To resolve this tension, the backbone organization should help leadership decide how much partners want to work together and who will do which tasks in return for which benefits. The backbone organization should also provide clear and consistent communications to internal and external audiences, letting leadership focus on generating the original ideas. In doing so, the backbone organization maintains consistency of communications and keeps partners engaged from meeting to meeting, ensuring effective decision-making and follow-through.

Many people, though, seem to think the typical norms for decision-making in a multi-stakeholder collaboration go out the window, that all decisions require unanimity. Not so. Collaboration does not necessarily mean consensus. Effective MSCs have very efficient decision-making processes and strong leadership. While not every collaboration needs an elaborate document, all need some set of established decision-making norms, which most often will result in the creation of decision-making cadre (for example governing boards, collaboration leaders, and working groups). The backbone organization should work with MSC leadership to establish the decision-making structure and ensure it lives on through transitions.

Principle 5: Involving the Target Population

It might seem obvious that before you try to help someone, you should talk to them. Surprisingly, few people do. Much of philanthropy over the decades has involved wealthy people sitting around and deciding what poor and vulnerable people need. Even partnerships that do set out to involve the target population can expend so much effort in building and maintaining themselves that they forget to listen and actively involve the people they want to help in the design, implementation, iteration, and assessment of their solutions.

The backbone organization should help an MSC adopt an iterative and agile approach, involving users from the very beginning. Partnerships that adopt an agile approach improve their probability of success in three ways. First, by falling in love with the problems facing the target population before they fall in love with specific solutions, they avoid the classic cut-and-paste error that afflicts many attempts at social innovation, perhaps most infamously in the failed PlayPump example. Second, they directly and continuously involve the target population—the best possible source for understanding the problems they face. This improves the quality of the solution and the probability that the target population will use it. Third, because collaborators focus on quickly delivering functional programs instead of comprehensive but delayed programs, they accelerate their efficiency in delivering impact.

We recommend the backbone organization take on the work of engaging the target population. Often great managers and doers do not excel at interacting with target populations. They know how to get stuff done, but their pride in ownership can inhibit their ability to effectively gather user input. The backbone organization should use and/or train the partners in the use of specific tools like user focus groups, co-creation and co-design methods, human-centered design thinking, surveys, and other tools.

Principle 6: Clear Measures of Success Connected to Learning

Too often, partnerships gather data with no clear sense of how the partners should interpret it in useful ways that drive learning and action. And metrics tend to proliferate. Why measure one thing when you can measure a dozen? But when you measure everything, you measure nothing. The backbone organization should help partners develop a balanced scorecard of the fewest, most critical metrics for self- and comparative-assessment and then turn those into active learning and intelligent action.

Backbone organizations should also help MSCs convey data and information in a way that resonates inside and outside the partnership. Before humans had a written language, we told stories. Our brains remember complex ideas and data when told in narrative, and compelling stories can drive changes in beliefs and behaviors. The backbone organization should support the partnership to create effective storytelling (including the ROI narratives mentioned above) that marries data with memorable anecdotes and vivid examples. When partners tell and retell these stories to others they drive learning, adaptation, and a widening of the circle of collaboration by inspiring others to join.

But critical and constructive progress reviews often get short shrift, even though the truly elite systematically rehearse and study their performances. All the best athletes, performers, and teams rehearse over and over again and relentlessly study each performance, read the reviews, and watch the game tape. Even among these elite, most focus on their flaws. The very best examine their strengths. The backbone organization should run introspection and retrospection sessions on partnership activities and outcomes, mining them for lessons learned and replicable solutions. To do this, the backbone organization should use a variety of practices from appreciative inquiry to premortems to after-action reviews. We recommend focusing more on identifying team strengths and looking to address weaknesses by bringing in new partners or individuals rather than trying to fix current partners.

Worth the Effort

Facilitation and coordination within a partnership are notable when they fail, and unnoticed when they succeed. Partners will likely never vote to have a backbone organization and may attribute the backbone organization’s success to their own ability to work well together. Only when it doesn’t work, when coordination breaks down and balls get dropped, or partners start to fight with one another, will people miss the backbone organization.

If partnership leadership can successfully navigate committing resources to establishing the backbone organization and enabling it to carry out these six principles, the odds of success go way up. It’s worth the fight.

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