“We can do this stuff by ourselves.” “Staffing costs too much.” “We’d rather use our funds for grants, not administrative costs, which are too high.”
Ask any grantmaker who’s been part of an advocacy collaborative, and they’ll tell you they’ve heard all these comments when funders don’t want to pony up for staffing. That’s frustrating for grantmakers who believe—and have seen through experience—that the most effective advocacy collaboratives are staffed in some way, e.g., consultants or intermediaries.
There are several advantages to staffed collaboratives, including their ability to provide:
Deeper due diligence. Intermediaries or staff do a lot of due diligence for funders that program officers sometimes can’t do alone or don’t have the ability to hire themselves. “Good staffing for these kinds of collaboratives can have incredible value for each participant’s grantmaking, because expert staff are constantly overseeing and evaluating the grants going out the door.”
Capacity-building support for grantees. Staff or intermediaries often offer high-quality services and resources for grantees beyond grants. “Our intermediary gives communications and marketing trainings, brings in experts to work with grantees, holds convenings and networking meetings, and a does a lot of other things that funders’ grantees benefit from and that they don’t have to pay for directly. Most program officers can’t provide these because their budgets are often stretched, and even if their foundation could, it’d probably be much more expensive to commission outside consultants for these services. The intermediary does this much more cost efficiently.” And, because this kind of support is coming from a designated provider, it can help quell the tendency of some grantmakers to offer unsolicited opinions about what grantees could or should be doing.
A buffer and access point between funders and grantees. Staff or intermediaries serve as interlocutors for grantmakers and grantees who can sometimes have difficulty communicating honestly and directly. “With an intermediary, you have staff who aren’t funders, and that gives them more leeway to work with grantees, be a bridge builder, and resolve differences because program officers aren’t always able to have honest conversations with grantees with how things are going.” And, on the grantee side of the equation, having a clear contact person and flow for paperwork makes processes simpler to navigate.
Alternative vehicles through which to provide financial support. National funders can’t always support local groups or organizations that might be out of their program area, but they can do it through intermediaries, which are public charities and able to fund projects foundations may not be able to.
Can operate behind the scenes. The best intermediaries, some funders say, are those that are low profile and let their work speak for itself. “As an intermediary, we don’t promote ourselves very much. People want an intermediary that does its job – not compete with itself for recognition. That can be a tension if you don’t manage this well. How do you market something that’s not a product unto itself? We’re only as good as our grantees and funders.”
Stories From the Real World
I’ve participated in advocacy collaboratives in which each foundation makes its own grants but shares an aligned strategy, requests proposals from the field together and decides how to fund them through consensus. We operated this way because we didn’t want to spend money on staffing. After a while, we decided to pay a consultant to get the dockets together. It was fairly unstructured in terms of having an intermediary but because there’d been more ad hoc collaboration or communication among funders previously, it was an improvement. Now we’re a more formalized collaborative structure, which one of our large funders set up. We have a program officer and fundraising staff who devote time in raising money for the issue. We’ve found this to be more efficient.
The most fulfilling aspect of this work is with the grantees. Every day, I’m given the chance to think about what would help them and increase their capacity to sustain their work. I get to interact with most of them around their organizational health as well as strategy. And it has an impact. In one state, for example, when one of the organizations was funded originally, they were in crisis. It was a terrible time, but now it’s a lot better; our grantee has grown tremendously. Now, we’re seeing the leaders who’ve come out of that state becoming police chiefs and such and having an impact on how policing impacts their town. As much as I love the donor table, those meetings will always pale in comparison to what we’ve witnessed in the field with our grantees.
I’m always surprised that some funders don’t understand the importance of having an infrastructure for the collaborative itself. Our advocacy collaborative has five full-time staff. That sounds like a lot, but we all agree that without staff with all that expertise, we wouldn’t get the amazing results we’ve gotten. I think funders who try to do this on the cheap find that donors and grantees don’t get what they need. On the funder side, the intermediary we use does deep due diligence work to help us figure out what groups to support, including groups that I wouldn’t have the time or reach to get to. On the grantee side, the intermediary provides all kinds of technical assistance and often serves as a bridge builder between the funders and non-funders. And because the staff aren’t grantmakers, they can have more honest conversations with grantees about how things are going.
Some funders, however, have a different point of view.
I don’t think every collaborative has to have staffing. You have to look at the goal of the collaborative. There are some funders who are happy with running their collaborative and doing it on the cheap. That’s not necessarily a bad way to go when funders may know exactly what they want to do and are comfortable with that. My personal feeling is that there’s room for all of it, but you have to figure out what you want to get out of it and make that happen.
Other challenges to a staffed collaborative:
Stories From the Real World
Our advocacy collaborative’s grantees have always been concerned about losing contact with the donors when they receive money through an intermediary that’s staffing the collaborative instead of directly from the foundations. We’ve always had to explain to them that the added value to them outweighs the cost. They’re exposed to more foundations as a grantee in our collaborative than they would be to access foundations on their own. Expert staff are advocating for them, and they’re part of a cohort. We also provide capacity building of all kinds—like communications training and help—that are really important to grantees and that they might not get from a single foundation. Still, there’s concern that when funding is filtered through an intermediary, if you don’t fit, you’re out. Or, if you’re doing work outside of the focus of the fund, you’re out.
Whether a collaborative chooses to use staffing, consultants, an intermediary, or simply its members to work toward its goals, there are several models that seasoned advocacy collaborative grantmakers have watched play out. Some of the practices that have worked well include:
Please click here for information on GrantCraft’s methodology for this research.