As you confront the complexities of mission-driven community work, you’ll inevitably bump into other groups chipping away at some aspect of the issue you’re concerned about. For example, if you’re working to promote children’s academic success, you’re bound to interact with groups dealing with poverty, homelessness, mental health, and a range of other issues affecting families.
“Social concerns overlap and intersect,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of the new book You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “Each nonprofit’s mission is unique, and it takes the combined force of all of those missions to move the needle on complex, entrenched problems.”
Making broad community-change requires the work numerous individuals and organizations and generally involves coordinated programming as well as policy reform. “Getting everyone pulling together is complicated,” said Floersch. “It takes dedicated time and resources, and that’s where grants come in.”
Grants often support community-change efforts and while funds may be shared, the organization applying for the grant holds bottom-line responsibility. The coordinating or “backbone” role of the applicant is demanding, so before volunteering to take the lead Floersch suggests reviewing the list of sample backbone activities provided by the Collective Impact Forum.
Here’s a quick overview of lead agency responsibilities:
- Provide infrastructure to support the work: This includes establishing and staffing a steering committee and work groups, refining outcome and performance measures, establishing data systems, and putting required recordkeeping, oversight, reporting, and financial systems in place.
- Ensure strategic coherence of the effort: This includes monitoring progress, coordinating research, and coordinating the activities of partner groups.
- Serve as a neutral convener: The backbone organization does not promote one viewpoint, but rather facilitates dialogue and mediates conflict among stakeholders to keep the work on track.
- Facilitate robust community engagement: The backbone organization builds and nurtures key relationships to support the initiative.
- Communicate and advocate to support the agenda: This includes sharing information, data, updates, and research to fuel the sense of urgency among stakeholders and keep a robust focus on needed changes.
- Represent the initiative: Because the lead organization serves as the unified voice and convener of the full group, a reputation for integrity, credibility, and transparency is essential.
- Raise money to support the work: This includes developing joint grant proposals, undertaking general fundraising activities, facilitating coordination of existing funding streams, seeking local and state government support, and working tirelessly to keep the effort going until goals have been achieved.
Broad, long-term change takes the time, passion, and perseverance of diverse people and groups. A strong backbone organization makes all the difference. “Before jumping in, educate yourself about the demands of the leadership role,” said Floersch. “It’s a big commitment and it is hard work, but the collective effort can produce results that no one organization can accomplish alone.”