Today while working with leaders in Lorain County who are forging a collaboration to create more economic opportunity for single moms I was asked a very good question: How do you design an effective backbone?
In some of its early collective impact work, FSG described six different kinds of backbone organizations and noted that there are a multitude of designs that can be used to perform the key functions required to facilitate collaborations. While the FSG descriptions are helpful, I found myself giving a much simpler (and perhaps overly simplistic) answer: Design to build trust.
Stakeholders involved in a collaboration need to trust that:
- Their peers won't take advantage of them for participating in the collaboration.
- Funders will value the work they do within the collaboration.
- The "backbone" will create value for their organization.
- The collaboration process will empower them to do things that they cannot do on their own.
If the design and behavior of the backbone generates suspicion and doubt, participation in the collaboration will be reluctant and limited. Distrust results in coblaboration, not collaboration.
How to design a backbone that will build trust varies from collaboration to collaboration. But one sage piece of advice I've picked up is this: Trust is first built through one-on-one relationships more than it is in group settings. The servant leader at the helm of a backbone must take the time to understand the perspectives and priorities of each of the key players within the collaboration. That understanding is difficult to develop in group settings. Organizations participating in a new collaboration often see themselves as competitors for funding with the others at the collaboration table. Or they may not even know some of the stakeholders at the table. (Does the librarian know the workforce development director?) Neither competitors nor strangers are eager to share in large gatherings.
An effective backbone needs to be designed so it has the time required to build trust one-on-one with stakeholders long before it is expected to start producing results; and more importantly it needs a leader who can build that trust.