Networks for Collective Impact

What is collective impact?

In a 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania and Mark Kramer describe various efforts that aim to bring about collective impact, large-scale social change that is based on broad, multi-sector collaboration. To achieve collective impact, collaboratives need hands-on management support. Kania and Kramer state that “the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails.” They describe the importance of what they call backbone support organizations, which have specific skills and abilities that “serve as the backbone” for collaborative initiatives.

Members of the Central Appalachian NetworkBackbone Support Organizations

We think this concept of a backbone support organization describes our work well. Much of the day-to-day work at Rural Support Partners focuses on building and strengthening networks for sustainable economic development. Although we support leaders, organizations, and networks, most of our current work is with networks. And many of these networks are undertaking collective impact efforts, where individual organizational agendas are merged to find a collective approach to community improvement.

What does a backbone support organization do?

  • Coordinating network tasks: We attend to and address all of the details of network logistics, manage the networks tasks and timelines, manage the network’s meetings, and plan and coordinate large network events.
  • Facilitation: We facilitate face-to-face meetings and conference calls (keeping the group on track and moving forward), develop agendas for meetings with network members, and capture key reference points or ideas for the group.
  • Lead thinking: We listen to network members’ ideas, look for common themes and synthesize them, throw out what we are hearing and what we think could potentially to be done, and then follow and heed network members’ directions.
  • Vision: We share the network’s vision, but our vision is broad enough to incorporate all of the various strategies that the network might use.
  • Managing network structure and relationships: We reflect critically on the network’s structure in order to improve it, and we help network members coordinate well.
  • Communications: We make sure all meetings and communication have value for network members; we communicate regularly with members; we get materials out early before calls and meetings; and we serve as the keeper of network documents. 
  • Administration: We manage the administrative needs of the network (e.g., making sure grant agreements are filed).
  • Data collection and reporting: We help the network develop and use shared measurement systems for its work, and we develop summary reports of outcomes.
  • Fundraising: We write grant proposals and reports, and we serve as a liaison between network members and funders.
Further reading

Examples of Collective Impact Networks