Do We Need Staffing?

“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: 

  • They can operate too independently. Some funders have found that intermediaries can take on a life of their own that may or may not advance the collective goals. Or that staff get invested in preserving their jobs. Or, they do so much work, funders “show up at meetings and don’t have enough knowledge to challenge what they were recommending.” 
  • They’re a buffer between funders and grantees. While this can be a strength, we can also think of intermediaries as adding yet another layer between the funders and the grantees – there’s always someone in between. “That’s not just how some foundations want to operate.” Another concern is that intermediaries distance grantees from their funders. “We need to be on the ground because it makes a world of difference in your ability to assess a program’s effectiveness. That’s especially true in policy advocacy collaboratives where you really have to make hard-nosed decisions about how you’re going to make change so it’s important to know what’s going on.” 
  • There can be conflicts of interest. One big issue is when intermediary staff who are hired to be experts on the issue are still part of a structure that’s legally responsible to the intermediary, rather than to the collaborative. As one grantmaker notes, “A collaborative staff director I know does whatever the larger donors in the collaborative and their colleagues want because the intermediary gets so much support from them. That means they don’t do anything to offend the donors, which is unfortunate because they demand a lot, and then staff cave into those demands.” 

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. 

What Works?

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: 

  • Let the members work. “I’ve found that the best intermediaries are those that let the funder members do the program officer work, for example, go on site visits, look at proposals, share responsibilities for doing the kinds of program officer work. As a result, they had a much deeper relationship with the grantees than if they were focused on administrative work.”
  • Hire staff that has clout. “Whether to use staff depends on how credible the staff is. Our foundation staffed our advocacy collaborative, and we had automatic credibility because of our long history of work on the issue. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes if one foundation is providing the staffing, you can’t be sure whether it’s their show or, if they’re using an intermediary, whether it’s the leadership you want or need.”
  • Practice transparency. “There’s always a challenge when you’re paying some percentage of your funds to an intermediary because it raises tensions between what’s going out to the field and how much it’s taking to run the effort. To make it work, it has to be all transparent, agreed to and all the time. In our collaborative, there was agreement that 15 percent of the national funders’ contribution went to the intermediary, 12 percent of which went to the management of the fund itself, and only 3 percent to the intermediary. Local funders paid 12 percent, 3 percent of which went to the intermediary’s overhead and the rest to management of the fund. That was actually a pretty lean structure, but it was never perceived that way so we needed to be REALLY clear about our financial reporting. Still, there was always some natural resentment about how much the intermediary was getting.”
  • Look for strong facilitators. “Having strong staff, especially facilitators, for these collaboratives is essential. Great facilitators who can talk to everyone one on one and facilitate funder meetings are really important and are skill sets we prioritize in hiring.”
  • Ask for strategic analysis and landscape scanning. “Our intermediary has developed a more comprehensive reporting process that our collaborative funders use to show their boards and institutions about the work they’re doing in partnership with other funders. We ask grantees for their accomplishments, what they tried and what didn’t work across different categories such as promoting policies at the state and local levels, changing the national debate, advancing civic participation, strategic communications, base building, etc. Then we take between 300-500 pages of this information and make an aggregate grid that’s about four pages long. That document is very flexible: Funders can take whatever their institution is most interested in and “lead” with that row of the grid. It’s VERY specific too, showing what’s happening state by state. We have maps showing where policy actions have taken place and other visuals that show progress. We do it this way because if all we did was track change at the federal level, we’d have very little to show for it—we wouldn’t have a field. Instead, we’re showing all winnable campaigns all around the country.”


  • Do we need some kind of staff capacity for our collaborative? If so, what kind of structure would meet our needs?
  • How will staffing add value to members? To grantees?
  • How will this infrastructure be supported? 

Please click here for information on GrantCraft’s methodology for this research.

About the author(s)

Cynthesis Consulting