Ways to Work with Government: Working Through an Intermediary

In this type of collaboration, a foundation and government agency work together through an organization that brings special expertise — or the independence that comes from being a third party — to an issue, project, or plan. An intermediary organization might carry out an entire project (for example, planning and conducting research on local farmers’ use of water resources) with support from a foundation and cooperation from government. Or a foundation might support an intermediary as part of a larger government initiative: one foundation, for example, supported a university program to train social workers in a new child-welfare approach, but the service itself continued to be delivered by the state agency.

Foundations sometimes prefer this arrangement, grantmakers said, because intermediaries are able to do things government can’t do itself. Moreover, intermediaries are usually more nimble and accountable to the foundation, monitoring progress and providing regular reports of work in the field. Some intermediaries also serve as formal or informal advisors to foundations and government partners because of the depth of their expertise and perspective on the wider field. In addition, intermediaries are often translators between foundation and government staff or “thought partners” in interpreting trends and developing strategy.

A grantmaker may choose an intermediary specifically because it is close to the ground and knowledgeable about a field. Those qualities are especially valuable when a project is far removed geographically and culturally from the funder. A U.S. based foundation that supports rural disease eradication in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, collaborates with national departments of health by working through two types of intermediary organizations: international groups with public health expertise and local groups with good reach in the affected communities. Grantmakers recognize that local intermediaries are often “context smarter” than the foundations that fund them.

A program officer involved in U.S. school reform nationally explained, “On one hand, we want to keep a small, smart, nimble staff; on the other, we want to work at scale. Therefore, we often work through intermediaries that represent the foundation in a geographic partnership with a city or state. Working through intermediaries increases both accountability and transparency.” For this foundation, intermediaries sharpen the perspective of grantmakers and free them to concentrate on the big picture. When experienced, trusted intermediaries are available, partnerships can be fairly easy to establish. In some fields, intermediaries cultivate ongoing relationships with government partners (for example, nonprofit housing organizations with city housing agencies, which interested funders can tap into).

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Working with Government.