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Conveners and Backbones - Defining Roles in Collective Impact

Submitted by Liz Weaver on August 3, 2016 - 2:16am

Jeff Edmondston, Managing Director of The Strive Network recently published a blog exploring The Difference between Backbones and Conveners in Collective Impact

Collective Impact is framework that is useful for collaborative community planning tables focused on moving the needle on vexing community issues like educational achievement, neighbourhood revitalization, and poverty reduction.  The Strive Network has been active in scaling up cradle to career educational achievement collaborative planning tables across the United States and, as Jeff discusses in his blog, has encountered various community approaches to the roles of convening social change efforts and providing the backbone infrastructure. 

The Strive Network blog describes roles for both the backbone and the convener as follows. 

Backbone Roles include: 

  • Connecting and supporting leaders from across the community keeping them focused on the vision, mission and outcomes of the collaborative partnership
  • Establishing the data management infrastructure and ensuring that data is collected and analyzed
  • Advocating for the technical supports required including access to data and communication tools
  • Marshalling investments to support the efforts of partners around the table to achieve the outcomes

Convener Roles include: 

  • Engaging practitioners to ensure that partners are actively contributing to outcomes
  • Facilitating multi-sector networks across the partnership to ensure they are focused on the action plan
  • Updating action plans through the collection of data and shared communications

In the example provided by The Strive Network in this blog, the Backbone infrastructure appears to take prominence over the convening role.  Our experience with Vibrant Communities is different. 

Vibrant Communities (VC) is a multi-sector, place based approach to reducing poverty and VC collaborative roundtables exist in more than 50 cities across Canada.  To learn more about the Vibrant Communities movement simply explore

In our approach, the Convener of a roundtable is often a funder, government partner, or large community organization that has sufficient credibility to bring together multi-sector partners to tackle the issue of poverty.  The Convener initiates the collaborative table and begins the community discussion about the issue. 

Across Canada, the Convener Role includes: 

  • Convening and Hosting:  the convener initially calls the table together
  • Early Investor:  the convener is often an early investor in the collaborative effort
  • Fiscal Sponsor:  in many cases, the convening organization acts as a fiscal sponsor for the backbone infrastructure including holding funding for the collaborative table, hiring staff and providing administrative infrastructure
  • Trusted partner:  convening organizations are often members of the collaborative roundtables but not the chair or lead, this role is held by another member of the roundtable

Typically, the backbone in a Vibrant Communities Collective Impact approach includes a small staffing infrastructure that works in partnership with a steering or executive committee of the collaborative planning table.  Many of the roles discussed by The Strive Network are consistent with what Vibrant Communities partners have experienced. 

Collective impact roundtables in Canada are often built on limited financial resources as this is still an emerging practice.  This requires the backbone (staffing) infrastructure to work collaboratively with its leadership volunteers to move the effort forward. 

It is important, as we continue to build our knowledge about collective impact as a collaborative community change approach, that we get more definitive about the distinct, connected and important roles played by various partners in collective impact efforts.  

Let me know your thoughts.