“Over the years, more and more funders, program directors, public officials, and scholars have pushed for collaborative approaches to achieve significant social change. The impetus for this has largely been the realization that despite multitudes of initiatives dedicated to issues such as improving educational outcomes for young students, eliminating hunger and diseases, and providing better employment opportunities for disadvantaged people, wide-ranging progress remains elusive.
In their seminal article on collective impact, authors John Kania and Mark Kramer argue that such efforts can benefit from a backbone organization—a superstructure that provides coordination, planning, facilitation, reporting, and administrative skills to participating organizations. Examples of backbone organizations in the education sector include StrivePartnership in Cincinnati, Commit! in Dallas, Alignment Nashville, and Partners in Progress in Oakland and Brooklyn.
In our own research on food insecurity in Houston, however, we have observed that the backbone organization is neither the only feasible nor even the best structure for grounding multi-organization collaborative initiatives. Instead, we see it is one of four possible structures on which collaborative efforts can hang. Each of the four structures has strengths and weaknesses related to what we see as five critical elements of collaboration: user focus, a common agenda, self-reinforcement, the potential for scale, and a broad scope. Determining which structure will work best for partnering organizations requires that they examine the context and goals for their collaboration.”