After the Fire Provides Backbone Leadership and Support for North Bay Forest Improvement Program’s Success

In the Fall, After the Fire had the chance to present at the 2021 Colorado Wildland Fire Conference on the North Bay Forest Improvement Program. It was as successful discussion as fire professionals from all over the state learned how this public-private partnership among four counties could be implemented in Colorado.

While there was much to discuss around providing technical assistance to landowners and the feasibility of using public dollars to support work on private land, one thing remained as both a highlight of the hour-long presentation and a question mark moving forward. How does one even manage this sort of regional project?

The North Bay Forest Improvement Program

Within the North Bay Forest Improvement Program, After the Fire holds the contract with CAL FIRE and is responsible for the reimbursements to Implementers and landowners at the time of project completion. We also manage the project’s revolving loan fund. However, what all of the partners within this project have learned over the last two years of planning and implementation is that the need for a backbone organization to keep NBFIP rolling requires so much more than cutting checks and managing excel spreadsheets.

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The Role of Backbone Organizations

The term “backbone organization” is not new. In 2012, the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) underscored the value of these types of organizations within large collaborations as leading the “intangibles” of the work that are both not anticipated when creating the scope of work and proposals nor predicted until the need for guidance is right in front of our collective noses. Furthermore, as partners bring their own technical skill and ability to their slice of the project, a backbone project manager fills the gaps of what skills are needed to reach collective impact. Simply put for NBFIP, it lets a Registered Professional Forester be out in the field doing forestry work and not behind a computer rolling out project timelines. What a concept.

The Secret Sauce: Leadership

And here is the thing that SSIR knows to be true and we at After the Fire have to agree: “the one fundamental truth about backbone effectiveness is that its leader can make or break the organization’s success. This component of the evaluation captures some of the intangible “secret sauce” that helps us understand the backbone role going forward.”

The North Bay Forest Improvement Program has some secret sauce, alright. It has kept the program going during a global pandemic when capacity was limited, and morale was low. It has led the iteration and reiteration of contracts, blog posts, slide decks, FAQ documents, and applications within the project to make sure the information is current, relevant, and accessible. It has developed portals and project management tools to make sure this multi-county project has efficient means of communication and record keeping. It has been the face of external outreach efforts like the Colorado Wildland Fire conference but also zoom meetings with other Resource Conservation Districts outside the area who are curious to learn more about how to implement a similar project in their region.

Necessary, Sometimes Tedious Work

None of this is glamorous. In fact, it can be quite tedious. But it is all entirely necessary, and the result is the success we have seen NBFIP achieve, with its growing interest among landowners, completed projects within agreed upon timelines, quick reimbursement of payments, and the recent news of an additional CAL FIRE grant award of $3.5M more dollars to make more of a collective impact in the region.

Supporting Successful Collaboration

A backbone organization can’t do it alone. We are so grateful for our partners from Clear Lake Environmental Research Center, Sonoma Resource Conservation District, Gold Ridge Conservation District, Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, and Napa Resource Conservation District for their commitment to this project and the immense expertise they all provide. Together we are promoting more healthy forests and reducing wildfire risks for an area that knows all too well how devastating it can be when that collective impact isn’t there.

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Molly Curley O'Brien

Molly Curley O'Brien

Molly is the Director of Grants and Government Programs for After the Fire and developed the backbone structure for the NBFIP program.