Lessons learned about backbones from 4 years of the Working Cities Challenge.

Every month, the Boston Fed Working Cities Challenge team gathers to review our “learning agenda,” a set of questions we’ve developed to help us better understand how our model is working and what we need to adapt. One of its most pressing questions is, “What would it take to help backbone organizations more effectively distribute leadership and promote the sustainability of their initiatives?”

The WCC model asks initiatives to designate a “backbone organization” to provide them with oversight and leadership. And because the role requires balancing the commitment to step up with the need to step back and share that leadership with others, the answer to this question is timely and relevant to every initiative we support.

The “stepping up” that we ask organizations to do includes assuming both leadership and oversight responsibilities that facilitate an initiative’s progress. Leadership typically involves securing and sustaining engagement and commitment from team members and key stakeholders, lending the initiative a credible and respected voice, and modeling a strong contribution toward the work of achieving the shared result – a 10-year goal that teams push toward to benefit lower-income people in the community. Oversight roles include being accountable for the use of WCC grant funds as a fiscal agent, employing the team’s initiative director, discussing progress and challenges with the Boston Fed team in monthly check-ins, and ensuring that team members uphold their commitments to fully engage in learning opportunities and the WCC’s independent evaluation.

At the same time, strong backbone organizations and their leaders recognize that their initiatives must do more than pursue a shared result. They must do this through cross-sector collaboration that strengthens the civic infrastructures of their city. This requires stepping back enough to ensure that many team members have a chance to own and lead the work. Distributing leadership not only builds collaborative capacity, but it also improves the likelihood that the initiative will sustain beyond catalytic funding like the three-year WCC.

Few organizations in smaller industrial cities, where civic infrastructure may be weak, have the experience needed to perform this balancing act. But backbones are critical, and we at the Boston Fed want to help them tool up for the job. Here’s some of what we’ve learned from the past four years of the WCC:

Our observations

Our experience suggests that promising practices demonstrated by effective backbones include:

  • Empowering a co-lead and/or executive committee to share key leadership and decision-making functions
  • Giving credit to other individuals and organizations on the team, even when it comes at the expense of taking credit oneself
  • Using your organizational capacity to add value to other team members in areas like data analysis, fundraising, and communications
  • Investing in the relationship with the initiative director to ensure that person feels trusted and supported by the team
  • Modeling a collaborative approach to grant-seeking
  • Distributing financial resources by compensating partners for playing key roles in the initiative

Common pitfalls experienced by backbone organizations and their leaders have included:

  • Exerting a disproportionately strong influence on initiative decisions and direction, which sometimes results from moving too quickly for team members to share in the process
  • Treating the initiative director solely as the backbone’s employee, not an employee of the initiative
  • Blurring the boundaries between the backbone’s own mission/work and that of the initiative
  • Leaving team members out of the loop when it comes to personnel and financial matters, that, while technically the purview of the backbone, affect the entire initiative and team
  • Not supporting or inviting contrary perspectives and approaches that might stretch the team’s thinking

New insights

We found that backbone organizations with the most promising practices were all what we call “high capacity.” Two of our best examples of high-capacity backbone organizations are Lawrence CommunityWorks, with a staff of 30 and annual revenue of $6 million, and Chelsea’s The Neighborhood Developers, with 25 staff and nearly $4 million in annual revenue. These organizations are outliers among their Working Cities peers, with far more resources than the typical nonprofit in a smaller industrial city, strong track records of doing work that is well aligned with their teams’ initiatives, and experience leading collaborative change efforts.

These and other strong backbones participating in the WCC typically demonstrate:

  • Experience securing and deploying flexible grant resources and working outside of traditional, compliance-driven programs
  • Expertise in areas like community engagement, fundraising, learning/evaluation, and policy advocacy
  • Ability to support initiative work with in-kind staffing as needed
  • Willingness—and bandwidth—to experiment, innovate, and take risks
  • Credibility and a track record acting as a convener of community-wide conversations
  • Backbones without these experiences or advantages can still take important steps to build the team’s collaborative capacity. This includes working with the team to clearly articulate—and redefine, as needed—the roles and responsibilities of each partner. For example, who participates in the evaluation of the initiative director? Who reviews and approves the budget? How can partners supply the capacity a backbone is lacking, such as data analysis or grant writing?

What’s next

The first thing our team did after tackling our learning question internally was to pose it to our teams, which we did through a call with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut initiative and backbone directors. The reflections they shared helped refine and validate our thinking on the topic, and some key insights are reflected accordingly in this piece.

While sharing our lessons with our current teams is a first step, we also recognize the opportunity to apply these lessons to our approach in future rounds of the WCC, which we’re currently exploring in northern New England. Compared to past rounds, we have many more insights to share when it comes to selecting the “right” backbone and how an organization can serve in that role effectively.

We also plan to explore the idea of encouraging teams to better distribute leadership and dollars, which may result in team members stepping up and helping backbones shoulder more responsibility for initiative implementation.

As we tackle next steps, we know we’re in good company because our peers are taking on the same questions. We encourage those interested in digging more deeply into the backbone role to check out the Collective Impact Forum.


This piece originally appeared on April 16, 2019 on the Working Cities Challenge page.