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Not just passing through: partnering with intermediaries for lasting change

Partner story

What is an intermediary?

An intermediary is defined as an organisation that is funded by one or more foundations that meets at least one of the three criteria below:  

-funds a grantee or grantees directly;   

-performs a function so important that, absent the intermediary, the funder would have to perform itself; and   

-relates to grantees or a field of interest in any way that makes it act as a grant-making adviser.

(Keton et al., 2017)

What added value do intermediaries bring?

Intermediaries are organisations that act as bridges between donors and not-for-profit organisations. They serve many purposes beyond simply dividing a large grant into smaller grants.

Intermediaries can help to align strategies across funders and grantees, or they can help to align funders around issues. In doing so they build collaboratives that drive far-reaching, systemic change.

They can also provide grant management and grantee support. Many of them help build movements, the capacity of the field, or their grantees. Close to the issues on which they work, they are well equipped to understand and translate various local contexts. Thanks to their expertise, in-depth knowledge and the established relationships that they have made in the communities, they are well placed to support the development and execution of complex strategies.

We spoke to some of Oak’s intermediary partners. Watch the video to hear what they had to say:

Why are intermediaries important to Oak?

Currently, one out of five Oak grants are made to intermediaries but the percentage of some programmes’ annual grant-making to intermediaries is even higher. For example, 32 per cent of our Environment Programme’s grant-making and 45 per cent of our Issues Affecting Women Programme’s grant-making went to intermediaries between 2008 and 2017. Oak works with 63 intermediaries all around the world, including in Mexico, Brazil, India, China, the United States and parts of Europe and Africa.

What role do we see intermediaries playing in the future?

The climate for philanthropy is changing. According to Kristian Parker, “the interplay between funders is now more complex. We need more interaction between intermediaries and funders to ensure clear communication and to facilitate social and environmental change.”

Oak believes in the value of direct grant-making, but understanding the full implications of working with intermediaries helps ensure that we take the right approach to maximise the impact of each grant.

So, what are we learning?

1.      It is important to cultivate collaboration.

Intermediaries are highly diverse in their programmatic scope, size, legal form and purpose. They receive funding from multiple sources and work within varied social, political and cultural contexts.

Maintaining multiple funding relationships can be complex for intermediaries, who, while reporting to their funders must also maintain good relationships with their grantees. When roles are clear and complementary, and there is “resonance” between the different stakeholders working on the same issue, the donor-intermediary-grantee relationship can be highly effective.  

However, if funders’ parallel investments are not complementary, or when multiple funders are working to cross-purposes, intermediaries can be hindered in their ability to carry out their work. It is important to address these connected tensions through open discussion and decide together the way forward.

2.      It is important to build trust to create real relationships.

We believe that relationships between funders and intermediaries should be built on trust. We hope to cultivate more meaningful discussions and a process for joint learning.  As in every relationship, tensions between partners can arise – these should be addressed early on and intermediaries are often best placed to do this.

3.      Good leadership is crucial.

By engaging with good leaders and building cooperation, we hope to increase the impact of our partners’ work. Leadership positions do not, in the hierarchical sense of the word, have to be held by one funder, or one intermediary, or one grantee.  

Rather, leadership over a variety of different issues can be held by whoever and whichever organisation fits best, according to their expertise. We need many leaders with vision, courage, integrity, humility and focus, who can plan strategically and collaborate with their teams and partners to achieve long-lasting, far-reaching, impactful, positive social change. We see this as central to field building, which connects people and organisations in the same areas of work to create organised, concerted efforts around issues and challenges.

What are the next steps?

Oak wants to put into practice what we are learning, by taking forward internal reflection and engaging with external partners. To this end, we will:

-encourage better donor alignment on reporting and other requirements;

-continue our learning by promoting staff exchanges and developing tools that assist them in their interactions with intermediaries;

-continue to develop relationships with intermediaries that are thoughtful, consistent and constructive; and

-seek ways to promote learning and exchange among intermediaries.

Our team is excited about what is to come and will keep you posted on any developments through our newsletters, so watch this space!

*The report is built upon conversations with Oak staff and intermediary partners. The views are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect Oak’s position.