Collaborative efforts to address complex social problems are not new – cross-sector and cross-system collaboration is a popular, and often effective, approach to working with diverse partners to tackle society’s biggest challenges. However, the structured processes and focus a strong backbone organization can provide the space for such initiatives to achieve a meaningful difference through more aligned efforts.

Backbone organizations are exactly what they sound like: the chief support system, the entity or entities charged with coordinating the various efforts of partner organizations and ensuring everyone is moving together toward a common goal. Many organizations do great work within the standard core activities of a backbone, such as convening partners, facilitating critical dialogues, communicating across the partner network, etc. However, backbones can be more than a support system. Truly catalytic backbone organizations working with complex systems-change initiatives, including collective impact work, are able to move their partners to think and act in innovative and strategic ways. Catalytic backbones take the collaboration from planning to doing by instilling a sense of trust and urgency, and providing the tools, data, and space for innovation that partners need to achieve their shared goals.