HomeBlogLet’s remember that a backbone has multiple parts.

Let’s remember that a backbone has multiple parts.


Doug Taylor, CEO and Jenny Riley, Head of Community Impact from United Way Australia will be presenting on mobilisation at the Collective Impact Conference. Here, Jenny Riley comments on an emerging distributed backbone model.


SDid you know your backbone, also known as a vertebral column, is made up of usually 24 vertebrae? However when discussed in relation to Collective Impact ‘the backbone’ is often referred to as a singular piece. Over the past 18 months I have heard a number of themes emerge about ‘the backbone’:

  • 1. Many believe they should be the backbone, resulting in a jostling in communities for the position of backbone.
  • 2. The backbone, i.e. one entity, is responsible for the facilitation, data management, community outreach, (this has been supported by articles from FSG)
  • 3. The backbone role is seen as being in a position of power and the leader.
  • 4. The backbone costs $100,000s of dollars to support.

All of this is driven by the experience of collective impact in the US, where large private investments have been made in infrastructure, now known as the backbone. Interestingly this model has not gone off to the same extent in the UK and it is emerging slightly differently here in Australia.


It could be that we sit somewhere in the middle of the Big Society model of the US and the Big Government social model in the UK and thus our expression of collective impact will be different to our overseas friends. It makes sense that a localised version informed and shaped by the philanthropic, government and business relationships with the social sector here in Australia will emerge.


At United Way Australia, we have been part of a number of cross-sector collaborations in homelessness, health, education and the school-to-work transition space. In our experience, cross-sector collaborations looking for collective impacts are emerging with distributed backbones, that is, different players are playing different roles within the backbone. In one collaboration the role of secretariat, facilitator, data manager and community engagement were all provided by different organisations, there was no one organisation with the mandate of the backbone. In fact, in another collaboration where this was not deliberately the case and United Way played ‘the backbone’, a dependency was developed on the role of UW doing it all, making the collaboration unsustainable.


The notion of a singular backbone is not flexible enough for the Australian context. The funding required for a single entity to be a dedicated backbone is not readily available and is not sustainable in the long term. Also, there is something about a singular entity playing that backbone role as it is currently perceived; generally we shy away from being leaders and being led, especially in the not-for-profit sector where perceived tall poppys are shot down and the question of mandate is often raised. Instead, we believe, the Australian model of collective impact is emerging differently where the backbone is made of many parts, perhaps not 24 parts, but multiple parts who will share the weight and provide a flexible and sustainable base for impact.



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