What does a backbone actually look like?
It’s strong and centrally located and not something you necessarily think of a lot. Unless it’s broken and then you think about it a lot.
Backbones are getting a lot of airtime recently in foundation and nonprofit circles because of the collective impact model as described by FSG. A key component of the model is a backbone organization, which serve six key functions according to FSG:
- Guide vision and strategy;
- Support aligned activities;
- Establish shared measurement practices;
- Build public will;
- Advance policy;
- and Mobilize funding.
Sounds good, right? But what does it really mean? What does it look like on a practical level? The Bay Area Open Space Council has essentially served as a backbone organization – even though we didn’t call it such – for 24 years for the region’s land conservation community. We lead, convene, and facilitate fifty-eight member organizations and agencies that are protecting land from unfettered development and connecting people to that land. The Bay Area is a biodiversity hotspot, which means that the region is home to high biological diversity (that’s good) that suffers from extensive habitat loss (that’s bad). To ensure that the birds and bees have a place to do their thing, we need to protect land from concrete. Open Space Council members are well on the way to strategically protecting and stewarding 2 million acres. That means clean air, clean water, homes for flora and fauna, and recreation for us humans. In fact there are almost 1 million acres of publicly accessible parks and trails in the Bay Area. With 7 million people living here now and an additional 2 million on their way in the next 20 years, we still have a lot of work to do.
The Open Space Council is at the center of this work. Conservation happens locally, but funding and policies can happen at the regional level. Also, people move all around the Bay Area: residents of San Francisco ride trails in Marin, people in Fremont go to the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival, and so on. We are an inter-connected region and need a regional strategy to match.
So what does a backbone organization do? What have we learned in our 24 years? Here’s just a taste:
- Build community and fuel ideas with food. We convene four gatherings a year, one Open Space Conference every spring, and dozens of meetings sprinkled throughout the year. The food we serve is critical for a few reasons. First is that an empty stomach makes people cranky, not productive. Second is that eating together builds relationships. We get to know each other as people, not as competitors or bureaucrats. With relationships we can have ideas, build partnerships, implement plans, overcome challenges, and change the world.
- Create, experiment, learn and repeat. The staff of the Open Space Council has fluctuated between one to five people in our 24 years. Consistent through all those years is an entrepreneurial culture where ideas are valued and experiments are encouraged. We launched Transit & Trails to encourage people to take transit to parks, created Stewardship Palooza to generate more interest in land stewardship, and thanked our members with Fotobabble. And had fun doing it all.
- Strike a balance between being proactive and reactive. We do a lot of listening to what our members are doing, struggling with, questioning, and celebrating. We take all that we hear and we strike a balance between proactively addressing issues and reacting to what is happening now. An example is land stewardship: we now need to take good care of the land we’ve collectively protected from development over the past 100+ years. In anticipation of this shift from acquisition to stewardship we’ve convened a Stewardship Working Group, focused a Gathering on the topic, and increased the discussion of it on our blog. Another example is the much needed diversity in the people of the conservation movement. Our conference speakers bring new voices into the conversation like Kay Wang from New America Media, Dr. Nooshin Razani from Children’s Hospital Oakland, and Rene de Guzman from the Oakland Museum.
- Foster a culture of collaboration. Collective impact isn’t a centralized or top-down kind of model. We want to empower everyone involved to participate in the larger effort in the most effective ways they can. To do that we foster a culture of collaboration that encourages our members to work together. As a result, the Bay Area is home to dozens (hundreds?) of successful collaborations at the local level. To create a culture of collaboration we identify and magnify similarities (like how county planners, water agencies, and land conservation leaders actually have a lot in common), make the work visible and tangible, and have fun!
Since 1990 we’ve grown from a small group of like-minded colleagues to a growing community of people, organizations and agencies who believe that we need to protect land from development and we need to connect people to land. We serve over 800 people every year at our events. Our online reach exceeds 5,000 people. Our membership is growing and getting more involved in the movement.
And there’s more to do. So we’re drinking locally produced milk, eating locally grown kale, exercising on our local trails, and spending time with friends and family at our local park. That’s how we’re going to keep this backbone strong.
About the Open Space Council
The Bay Area Open Space Council is a unique coalition founded in 1990. The Open Space Council collaborates with land trusts, public agencies and others to set and execute a conservation vision for the San Francisco Bay Area. We work regionally to protect the land, connect people to land, and convene efforts to steward parks, trails, and agricultural lands.