“Collective impact” models, which feature one “backbone organization” and several partner organizations, typify many state STEM networks. Though these models vary from state to state, they often have similar attributes, such as emphasizing a partner approach, focusing on relationships between organizations and maximizing collective progress toward shared objectives. The theory is that better cross-sector coordination results in greater progress – more so than the isolated action of individual organizations.

Through the collective impact model, practitioners have identified a set of preconditions and conditions necessary for network success. Section A below, ORGANIZE, outlines a series of steps networks should consider to fully capitalize on a collective impact approach. Though these steps are each important, a network can be strong or even exemplary without having all of them in place. Thus, state STEM networks should cultivate these conditions in an ongoing way throughout the life of the initiative, rather than just in the initial launch period.



Find an Influential Champion

Finding an influential champion (or group of champions), who is respected and can bring senior-level cross-sector leaders together and keep their active engagement over time, is a critical factor for collective impact success. These champions should be able to cultivate urgency for change around an issue and persuade people to come and stay together.

Secure Adequate Financial Resources

Successful initiatives also require at least one anchor funder who is engaged from the outset and can mobilize other resources to support necessary infrastructure and planning processes.

Identify a Backbone Organization

Coordinating large groups in a collective initiative takes time, resources and a supporting infrastructure. The task requires a new type of nonprofit management organization with staff and a specific set of skills to coordinate participating organizations and agencies. While all state STEM networks feature a “backbone organization” to serve as an anchor for the work, some state network backbone organizations are relatively large in size, mature in age and high in capacity, while others are younger in age, operate in streamlined fashion and lean on partner organizations to accomplish network goals.

Backbone organizations provide six essential functions: they guide vision and strategy, support aligned activities, establish shared measurement practices, build public will, advance policy and mobilize funding. A typical backbone organization, during the launch of an initiative, prioritizes guiding vision and strategy and supports aligned activities. It then shifts focus as it matures to establish shared measurement practices on behalf of its partners. Eventually as a network seeks to expand its impact and build a stronger presence, the backbone organization will focus more on external activities, such as building public will, advancing policy and mobilizing funding

Several indicators can signal a backbone organization’s effectiveness at performing each of its core functions:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
    1. Partners accurately describe the common agenda
    2. Partners publicly discuss and advocate for common agenda goals
    3. Partners’ individual work is increasingly aligned with the common agenda
    4. Board members and key leaders increasingly look to the backbone organization for initiative support, strategic guidance and leadership
  2. Support aligned activities
    1. Partners articulate their role in the initiative
    2. Relevant stakeholders are engaged in the initiative
    3. Partners communicate and coordinate efforts regularly with and independently of the backbone organization
    4. Partners report increasing levels of trust with one another
    5. Partners increase scope/type of collaborative work
    6. Partners improve quality of their work
    7. Partners improve efficiency of their work
    8. Partners feel supported and recognized in their work
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
    1. Shared data system is in development
    2. Partners understand the value of shared data
    3. Partners have robust/shared data capacity
    4. Partners make decisions based on data
    5. Partners utilize data in a meaningful way
  4. Build public will
    1. Community members are increasingly aware of the issue(s)
    2. Community members express support for the initiative
    3. Community members feel empowered to engage in the issue(s)
    4. Community members increasingly take action
  5. Advance policy
    1. Target audience (e.g., influencers and policymakers) is increasingly aware of the initiative
    2. Target audiences advocate for changes to the system aligned with initiative goals
    3. Public policy is increasingly aligned with initiative goals
  6. Mobilize funding
    1. Funders are asking nonprofits to align to initiative goals
    2. Funders are redirecting funds to support initiative goals
    3. New resources from public and private sources are being contributed to partners and initiative

Create a Common Agenda

A common agenda includes a shared vision of change, an understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it.  

Set up Shared Measurement Systems

Setting up shared measurement systems involves collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participant, which ensures that efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable. Ideally, the backbone organization conducts systematic assessments of network progress and presents synthesized results to the board. While the number of partner organizations and layers of collaboration may change over time as the network adapts its strategy based on what is working, the most important thing is that all strategies clearly link to each other and back to the common agenda and shared measures.

Execute Aligned Activities

Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action. 

Practice Continuous Communication

Consistent and open communication is needed across the network partners to build trust, assure mutual objectives and create common motivation.


Alan Tuck and Nan Stone, National Networks: Planning can align a national network for full impact, The Bridgespan Group (2007)

Fay Hanleybrown et al., “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (2012)

Peter York, The Sustainability Formula: How Nonprofit Organizations Can Thrive in the Emerging Economy, TCC Group

Shiloh Turner et al., “Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact: Part 2,” Stanford Social Innovation Review (2012)