HomeBlogWhy Neutrality Matters for Collective Impact Backbones

Why Neutrality Matters for Collective Impact Backbones

As using a Collective Impact approach to address complex social issues gains momentum in Australia, and around the globe, there’s been much discussion over the role of the ‘backbone’ and whether neutrality should be a prerequisite.

In essence, the role of a backbone organisation is to facilitate collaboration among diverse stakeholders, rather than deliver traditional programs and services. This includes community engagement and building a movement for change, facilitating a common agenda and collaborative mindset among stakeholders, sourcing funds and forming partnerships to deliver shared value, developing shared measurement, and administrative functions such as reporting.

While there’s no doubt Collective Impact backbones can function in a multitude of ways, I’d like to share from practical experience – from both sides of the fence – how genuine neutrality offers substantial benefits for both communities and other stakeholders involved in Collective Impact.

Placing community aspirations and voices at the centre

Many Collective Impact backbones also deliver services in the same community, which can fast track knowledge of community and connections, but cloud open-ended community engagement with the strategy and services offered by the backbone. Unintentional as this may be, it can limit the scope of dialogue, inhibit the emergence of new priorities and different ways of working, and reinforce existing power imbalances and tensions.
A neutral backbone facilitating Collective Impact enables free and open community dialogue about what the community wants to achieve, uninhibited by broader organisational strategy, funding cycles and politics, avoiding predisposition towards finding a home for funding or programs which may or may not align with community needs.

Removing roadblocks to deep community collaboration

Communities can be rightly wary of organisations with vested interests – be they real or perceived. Before The Hive, I worked on a government led service coordination initiative in South West Sydney, delivered as part of the redevelopment of a public housing estate. One of the key challenges to bringing local community members and service providers on the collaborative journey needed to progress the work, was the lack of a neutral facilitating backbone. Our lack of neutrality meant local people saw our efforts as an attempt to gloss over the decision to rehouse many families, rather than the genuine attempt it was to support those families’ leaving to make the best transition possible, and provide those families’ staying with effective services and opportunities. Gaining trust was extremely difficult. Without it, deep collaboration couldn’t happen. It was an example of how NOT being neutral can create practical issues on the ground, despite the best intentions.

Key questions for assessing the suitability of your organisation to provide backbone services
  • Do we have executive and board level endorsement for an approach that will evolve based on local conversations and dynamic local conditions?
  • Do we have the technical skills to be a backbone, including communications, finance, data, and governance?
  • Do we have a funding environment that allows us to try, test and learn – enabling innovation and agile responses rather than a funding agreement based on defined deliverables?
  • Do we have the practical skills to be a backbone, including community engagement, co-design, and adaptive leadership?
  • Do we have staff with the experience to work intuitively, by recognising and responding to patterns and dynamics as they emerge?
  • Do the backbone staff have the dedicated time and resources to provide backbone support rather than tacking this onto another role, ie neutrality of staff even if not of the entire organisation?
  • If we are not neutral, how can we give local stakeholders (including backbone staff) confidence that we will develop and follow a shared agenda, and not an organisational one?
Interested in finding out more about being a backbone for Collective Impact?
  • Talk to our team about how United Way’s consultancy services can help power or support your community collaboration or Collective Impact initiatives.
  • FSG offers useful resources, technical skills, tools, and infrastructure.
  • Collaboration for Impact have useful indicators of backbone effectiveness, including an article from Stanford Social Innovation Review on understanding the value of backbone organisations in Collective Impact.


About the author:david_lilley-web-square

David Lilley is Senior Advisor, Community Impact at United Way Australia, and was the founding Director of The Hive Mt Druitt, a Collective Impact initiative in Western Sydney.




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