The backbone structure may develop in one of two ways. An existing entity (either a nonprofit, government entity, or funder) within the collective impact initiative can take on the role for the group. Other times, the initiative may form a new organization to serve as the backbone.
Joining a collective impact initiative can empower your organization to do more as part of a group than it ever could on its own. These collaborations are formed to make real progress on complex problems. But that success can’t be achieved without exposing yourself to a degree of risk — especially if you’re the existing organization that will be taking on the backbone role. If you’re going to be in, you’ve got to be in all the way. So before you commit to becoming the backbone of a collective impact initiative, go in with your eyes open and make sure you’ve really considered the implications.
When considering each potential benefit of a collective impact initiative, ask yourself a question regarding your acceptable threshold for risk.
If you play the role of a backbone organization, the participating entities fall under the umbrella of your nonprofit.
- How can their activities put you at risk?
- Who are you indemnifying and for what?
- Could your organization’s endowment and assets be threatened due to the actions of the collective staff or partners?
- Can you control how the collective stays within acceptable advocacy and lobbying guidelines that otherwise might threaten your c3 (or other nonprofit designation) status?
- Are you taking on staff and vendors who don’t really report to you directly?
- Will multiple convenings require upgraded insurance?
- How will your liability policy be affected?
- Does serving in this role distract from your core mission and risk inhibiting your core programs’ impact?
- Do you have the administrative capacity and expertise to take on this added workload?
- Will the added volume of work overload your systems and technological infrastructure?
Even if you aren’t serving that formal role, there are risks everyone has to consider:
- Are there political, reputational, or brand risks for your organization?
- Who is representing your organization’s voice, and how do you ensure their key messages support, and not challenge, your main priorities?
- Donor confusion: If the collective impact initiative receives a grant from a specific foundation or donor, will your individual organization then be rendered ineligible for gifts from that entity?
Know Your Limits and Map Out Scenarios
As an ambitious and independent leader, you’re likely accustomed to making tough choices with your own staff and board and accepting culpability for any consequences those decisions create.
For a collective impact initiative to function, an organization must serve as the initiative’s “backbone” that is tasked with coordinating, facilitating and managing the organizations involved.
In a collective, on the other hand, your perspective will be diluted considerably. This can be a tough adjustment to make if you are used to grabbing the reins and leading from the front. There is no way around the fact that your fate will no longer be entirely your own — you will have to get used to being one vote, one voice, one decision maker, among many.
Joining a collective impact initiative is an extraordinary commitment that can bring extraordinary rewards — but it’s important to look at this monumental decision from every angle. Decide what level of risk you’re willing to tolerate, and identify the kind of events that could lead you to flag when exposure has gone beyond your accepted level of risk. Develop clear policies and parameters with your board. Have an exit strategy in case your risks exceed the potential impact, and remember, even though it’s a collaborative effort, your values are never up for compromise.