Are Backbone Organizations Eroding the Norms that Make Networks Succeed?

...while collaborating across sectors has become a familiar mantra of strong strategies and good governance among organizations, it took many of us by surprise when the collective impact framework proposed by FSG became synonymous with any and all forms of coordinated action in the public and nonprofit sectors.

If this was not on your radar when Elinor Ostrom set the stage (and subsequently won a Nobel Prize) for her work on collective action theory, you might think that the collective impact model is the foundational model of how networks collaborate (or should collaborate) in today’s times. On the contrary, not only have organizations been perfecting the art of networks for decades via practical learning but also, for nearly as long, scholars have built upon and joined Ostrom’s lifelong commitment to developing sense-making structures, models, and frameworks for coordinated action. While Ostrom’s work on collective action has predominantly informed the environmental sciences on a pathway of developing incentives for coordination—determining the rules for use and institutional constraints and opportunities—the basic foundations of coordinated action toward a common goal resonate across the disciplines. No amount of new labeling can dispel the conclusion that “collective impact” is equivalent to old wine in a new bottle.

As many people know today, the CI model proposes that five conditions should be met for a network to be effective. These are: having a common agenda; having a shared measurement system; engaging in mutually reinforcing activities; open and continuous communication; and governance of a backbone organization. The authors of the model state, “…we believe that there is no other way society will achieve large-scale progress against the urgent and complex problems of our time, unless a collective impact approach becomes the accepted way of doing business.” The authors are not wrong that tackling wicked problems is going to take audacious innovative efforts; however, what is questionable about their statement is whether the collective impact model is “the only way”—or in fact, a way at all. Many of us are still waiting for evidence that this model is the way forward, in relation to any other model already proposed.

Read the rest at Non-Profit Quarterly


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