Connected to Place, September 2019

E M A I  L E M A I L

Backbone Support for Partnerships

Earlier this year, I introduced the Essential Conditions for Place-Based Partnerships framework that I have developed from my work and research with partnerships for social change. In my May newsletter, I highlighted the first condition, Alignment among organizations. In this newsletter, Backbone Support is the featured condition.

Backbone support for a partnership of multiple organizations involves staff capacity and time to regularly guide, coordinate and monitor the partnership. It can come in the form of dedicated staff such as a director or coordinator of the partnership and/or through partner organizations that agree to commit staff time on a regular basis to backbone support functions. In some cases, a separate backbone organization (or a project within a 501(c)(3)) is formed. In a study of 25 well-established collective impact initiatives, backbone support, along with establishing a common agenda, was found to be instrumental for initiatives in achieving success and having impact with target populations. The researchers recommend investing in backbone support early in an initiative.

Collaboratives and partnerships often start with a planning process in which stakeholders build relationships with each other, develop a common agenda and determine collective strategies to achieve mutual goals. Establishing backbone support is a key part of that process. The sooner that support can be put into place, the shorter the gap between developing and executing the plan for collective impact. The Kirkpatrick Foundation, as one example, did just that for the Save Lives. Unite Oklahoma. initiative (animal welfare) that was launched in the past year.  Shortly after the development of the strategic plan for the initiative, the foundation moved to hire a full-time Director for this collective impact initiative. The commitment of the partner organizations, evident in the planning process, provided the Kirkpatrick Foundation with the confidence to fund, seek out and hire a Director. Now serving as Director, Kelly Burley is regularly communicating with stakeholders, leading the development of a marketing strategy and identity for the initiative, supporting the three Working Groups in the initiative and keeping shared metrics front and center among other backbone functions. I've been pleased to support the planning process, early implementation and now Kelly's transition into the Director's role. 

Funders like the Kirkpatrick Foundation are increasingly recognizing the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboratives and partnerships in creating social change and the fundamental role that backbone support plays in their functioning and impact. The Sand Hill Foundation has been funding Campus and Community as a Learning Laboratory: A Collective Impact Project at the San Mateo County Office of Education. I've been supporting Andra Yeghoian, Environmental Literacy Coordinator, in providing backbone support for school district-city/county government teams through quarterly workshops and other supports. The Pisces Foundation released a Request for Field-Building Projects in their Environmental Education Program this summer. The funding opportunity is for organizations to serve in a backbone role to "support, strengthen and further develop the field throughout their region." Through these grants, the Pisces Foundation will fund nonprofit organizations that facilitate a collective impact approach with a number of organizations to build and advance environmental education in their region.

There are many ways to deliver backbone support to collaboratives and partnerships. In their Field Guide for Backbone Organizations, Collaborate Up provides 27 ways! They highlighted 6 key ones in their article Six Proven Practices for Backbone Organizations: keeping stakeholders connected to the common purpose through effective communications; driving long-term momentum and growth by attracting funds and people to sustain action and amplify impact; developing a strong partnership identity with a name, logo and unique culture; coordinating activities across teams and organizations; involving the target population through multiple means; and developing a scorecard of the most critical shared metrics that supports learning and informs action.

To fully execute the partnership strategy and have the desired collective impact, however, some level of dedicated backbone support staffing is needed. It's critical to have someone (or far large partnerships, a few staff) who wakes up every day thinking about the collective endeavor, connecting with stakeholders and keeping it all moving along through the many challenges and opportunities that will undoubtedly surface. It's not easy or simple work but so important to the success of the partnership and its ultimate impact.

Upcoming Events (supported by Connected to Place)

September 10
Campus and Community as a Learning Laboratory Workshop
San Mateo County Office of Education

September 12
Leadership Seminar
San Mateo County Office of Education

September 15
Strategic Planning Session
Center for Ecoliteracy

September 17
Negotiations, Teacher Evaluation Redesign Project
Menlo Park City School District

September 23-24
Strategic Planning Retreat
Center for Ecoliteracy

In partnership,

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