Collaborating to solve complex problems is not a new approach. In fact, complex problems are rarely addressed by one organization, or even one sector, acting alone. Often, the large scale collaborative work needed to meaningfully address a complex problem depends on one or more organizations to provide ongoing support such as facilitation, convening, research, evaluation, and fundraising. Although the term “backbone” comes from collective impact literature, the concept of a backbone is relevant to many large-scale systemic change strategies. The impact of a backbone on the success of a cross-sector, cross-system effort should not be underestimated.
This toolkit focuses on the critical, strategic roles and actions a backbone organization – whether part of a collective impact initiative or other collaborative structure – can take to elevate the initiative’s overall work and impact. This toolkit is not a how-to for being a backbone. Rather, it is a next-level guide for backbones that want to be more than a basic supporting infrastructure, or that are going from managing to directing a complex initiative. While there are many resources available for organizations in the initial phases of becoming a backbone (see the overview section below), there are fewer guidelines or supports for established backbones ready to push the work to the next level.