Upgrading to a Digital Backbone

If you read about Backbone Support for Collective Impact, the typical approach to providing backbone support relies on appropriately-trained staff to achieve the desired coordination. The staff of the backbone organization spends most of its time managing information and communication. As described in the earlier posts, most of this work can be done much more efficiently with “Digital Backbone” technology. Perhaps even more importantly, the use of technology allows the Collective Impact efforts to scale much more easily.

One U.S. city has a backbone organization that is focused on Cradle to Career efforts for achieving Collective Impact. They have over 15 people working to coordinate their community’s efforts for supporting educational success. The thought of taking on another issue—such as health—seems overwhelming. Their staff is already very busy with the education work. How could they take on health! And hiring another ten staffers would be very costly. In contrast, if they were using Digital Backbone technology and a consistent set of strategy management practices (like Strategy Maps), it would be much easier to take on additional topics. Consider eBay.com or Amazon.com. Once the on-line infrastructure is in place, it costs very little to add sellers, expand the categories of goods sold and so on. It is not an exact comparison, but once the Digital Backbone infrastructure is in place for a community, it is very efficient to have the community work on multiple issues with minimal need to add more staff.

Upgrading from Centralized Coordination (by the Backbone organization staff) to Distributed Coordination by the Partnering Organizations

If all the collaboration needs to be coordinated by the Backbone organization staff, that creates a huge bottleneck for Collective Impact. Certainly some coordination is better than none, but if the amount of collaboration is limited by the capacity of the Backbone organization staff, the work will seem overwhelming and slow. In contrast, when community partners have the framework, processes and Digital Backbone technology in place, they can much more easily organize themselves, and then the amount of coordinated effort can grow dramatically without the Backbone organization staff becoming the limiting factor on what can get done.

The big wave of “Web 2.0” technologies over the past decade has dramatically changed how the internet is used. In the early days of Web 1.0, most Website content was created by professionals, and other people were viewers of the content. If someone wanted to get new content on a Website, they had to work through the Webmaster. Today, the vast majority of information on the Internet is created by the millions of people who are adding comments, uploading videos, creating blogs, posting items to sell, and so on. This type of mass collaboration taps into the small amounts of intrinsically-motivated volunteer time to accomplish huge things.

"To optimally achieve Collective Impact, a community should embrace a process that has some structure and control to create improved alignment but that is largely based on many different organizations using technology to collaborate among themselves and not being overly dependent or controlled by the Backbone organization."

Upgrading from funding efforts focused mainly on getting money for backbone staff to funding for shared infrastructure and results.

In typical efforts to achieve Collective Impact that rely on the staff of a Backbone organization, much of the need to raise funds focuses on money to pay salaries for staff and executives. This creates an internal focus for each organization and creates competition that hinders optimal collaboration. When funding for Backbone support becomes available, the different organizations that could potentially provide that Backbone support are often competing for the funding. Whoever gets the funding gets to hire more staff and grow in strength, influence and executive compensation. Those that don’t get the funding are weakened and may find it increasingly difficult to get future funding. Therefore, it is not surprising that, over time, organizations that share similar missions can become rivals rather than allies. And when funding is provided for one issue (such as tobacco cessation), it does little to support other issues (such as obesity, teen pregnancy, homelessness or gang violence). Thus, the competition for resources creates a dysfunctional dynamic that pits one issue against another when they are often interrelated and involve the same populations and have many of the same organizations as potential partners.

In contrast, when funding focuses on shared Digital Backbone technology, it really doesn’t matter who gets the funding. If the on-line Strategy Management System is funded by tobacco dollars granted to one organization, it can also be used, with little incremental cost, by those working on other issues like homelessness or obesity. And it matters little if the system is purchased by the United Way, a hospital or a local foundation—all the community partners can use it regardless of who purchased it. Funds from multiple programs can be combined—often using significantly less than would normally be spent on evaluation, measurement and reporting—to continuously fund a robust on-line infrastructure that supports many issues. When the focus is on a shared, Digital Backbone, it is much easier to come together and go after funding, because all the organizations benefit, regardless of which organization gets funded or which issue is the initial focus for Collective Impact. Also, once organizations like schools, local foundations or community-based organizations have learned to use one approach (e.g. Strategy Maps) and one platform, the learning curve is greatly simplified as they take on other issues.
With all of the savings and efficiencies that can be accomplished with Digital Backbone technologies, organizations face less pressure to focus their time on getting funding to pay salaries and can spend more of their time and resources working to achieve the priority community outcomes.