Globes between clouds,” MGN Marcel

Foundations have long used Philanthropic Intermediaries (PIs) to extend the skills and reach of their staff and resources as well as to undertake specialized projects on their behalf. PIs fit no single description other than that they are typically employed to fulfill a mission-critical role “in between” the foundation and its intended beneficiaries. PIs can be utilized for regranting, hosting pooled funds, program design and management, fiscal sponsorship, and a variety of efforts to build organizational and personal capacity. At a time when all aspects of philanthropic practice are being reexamined through the lens of racial equity and social justice, funders are undertaking a fresh look at PIs as a potentially integral component of strategy.

That inquiry could help to redefine the role of the Philanthropic Intermediary from a transactional agent of the foundation engaged merely in regranting or fiscal sponsorship to an agent of transformation that advances power building and racial equity as a core function.

A new generation of leaders is emerging in communities of color that asserts its autonomy from traditional organizational structures and directly challenges conventional philanthropic thinking and practices. These leaders are actively engaged in the process of figuring out the kinds of structural solutions that will best enhance the work of systemic transformation. Many are skeptical about the constraints of traditional c3 organizational models and are exploring models of shared leadership and networked approaches to promote collective connection and action.

These emerging leaders have a different set of organizational priorities. The chaos of COVID-19 has essentially liberated them from concerns about rebuilding a potentially weakened traditional nonprofit sector. But many are also new to leadership roles and inexperienced in the face of an incredibly challenging environment. What forms of assistance and what kinds of PIs and/or hybrid structures can best support their power building work as they define it and prove to be resilient in this rapidly changing context?

Forms. Philanthropic Intermediaries can take many forms.1 PIs have been viewed by many foundations primarily as vendors rather than strategic partners. But that picture is rapidly evolving to describe a diverse array of “platforms” that are challenging and disrupting old definitions of “intermediary” and are poised to provide enhanced forms of strategic partnership. Rather than serving as a mechanism to distribute a foundation’s power, PIs could be a means to help share and equalize power and pursue more equitable distribution of wealth and other resources within communities of color. Many PIs already share a commitment to those values. Others have the potential to incorporate an equity orientation more fully into their work, given the opportunity and encouragement.

PIs could play a more active role in managing the power dynamics between foundations and their grantees, seeing their contribution more in terms of strengthening movements rather than just individual nonprofits. This potential reframing of the PI relationship incorporates an ecosystem worldview that does not center the foundation. Instead, it seeks to invest long-term in regional power building infrastructures in which all the elements are mutually accountable. That calls for PI partners that are not only values aligned, but also have the lived experience of working in communities of color and operating in a way that builds both capacity and power.

Centering Equity2 suggests three fundamental questions to assess a PI’s “stance” to determine its potential alignment with the foundation’s mission and values and its associated tolerance for risk:

  1. How does the PI manage the power dynamics between the funder and grantees?
  2. Does the PI see its role as strengthening movements or individual nonprofits?
  3. Where does the PI see its role between partnering with groups to comply with standards and adopt best practices vs. partnering with groups to work around established (but inequitable) practices, lift up different standards, and shift systems?

Functions. Emerging social justice groups are engaged in exploring a variety of organizational arrangements and governance structures that will provide them maximum adaptability and flexibility to pursue community transformation. On a practical level, they are also seeking to share essential back-office functions rather than dedicating precious resources to create parallel or potentially redundant administrative systems. They tend to think and operate in terms of networks3 rather than traditional organizational hierarchies and expect everyone who works with them to center equity in the way they do business. Not many PIs are currently qualified or appropriate to meet those needs.

The next step for funders is to center equity in those relationships, in response to grassroots calls for a more “transformational” model of capacity building4 that is resonant with the cultural dynamics of grassroots organizations in communities of color. Growth is rooted in deep trust and should proceed at a pace that is respectful of that process rather than externally determined, artificial deadlines. It is also important to invest in the inner well-being and growth of leaders to help them be more resilient and intentional in their work. Peer sharing and mutual support in the context of a cohort learning model lays the groundwork for powerful interconnected networks for collective action.

A similar set of observations emerged from a recent study conducted by the Management Assistance Group (now Change Elemental) to help the Ford Foundation focus on the specific needs of “Emerging Social Justice Groups” that were less than 5 years old, led by people of color, and had annual budgets of less than $1 million.5 Recognizing the unique systemic barriers these groups face in the foundation funding marketplace, several themes emerged from their interviews, among them:

  • They seek “hosts” (PIs) who share their critique of power, understand their communities’ needs, and have intersecting goals. They are looking for Movement Partners that will provide safe spaces that acknowledge intersectionality and do not replicate systematic oppression.
  • They have unique requirements that extend beyond the needs of other start-ups. Backbone support and core services are essential, but they also require a willingness to share political risk; flexible leadership and coaching for their unique challenges; and an opportunity to form peer networks.
  • They need specialized guidance in thinking about creative structures (including alternatives to conventional fiscal sponsorship) and alternative financing models.

It is costly to provide these kinds of tailored services, and it takes more time from the Host’s staff to provide them than the typical fiscal sponsorship arrangement. Moreover, hosts who can fulfill these expectations are in high demand, and most expressed an inability to take on more projects. To serve more of these emerging social justice groups and to serve them better, the Hosts need more capacity, flexible capital, and a greater investment in their back-office infrastructure and systems. They will also need funder subsidies of their usual fee structures just to make this kind of work a break-even proposition.

A field scan conducted for a recent TSNE (formerly known as Third Sector New England, a long-established nonprofit Intermediary) Learning Lab yielded similar conclusions6 with an additional emphasis on cultivating “network capacity” by creating opportunities for collectively engaging in peer-to-peer learning and capacity building. It also recommended focusing on developing governance structures that support networks, coalitions, and movements as opposed to just single organizations. Network-focused capacity building fosters a strong web of relationships that themselves enhance and accelerate learning.7

In a subsequent Ford-funded Learning Lab designed and facilitated by Change Elemental,8 ten experienced Philanthropic Intermediaries engaged in an extended mutual exploration of how they might address opportunities related to scale and depth in equity. They focused on the needs of constituent-led groups that do not have formal 501c3 status and are often led by people of color, youth, members of the LGBTQI community, immigrants, and other historically marginalized groups. Those efforts rely on Fiscal Sponsors to connect them to philanthropic institutions, yet they are challenged to find PIs that are equity-aligned and have the capacity to take on new sponsored projects.

Echoing the findings reported above, the Learning Lab identified four high-leverage opportunities for funders to strengthen PIs’ equity-aligned services:

  • Fund PIs’ internal transformation to deepen equity in their services to meet growing demand
  • Ground partnership decisions in an understanding of PIs’ unique offerings and the needs of constituent-led groups
  • Resource field strengthening strategies that fees do not cover (such as PI communities of practice and needed internal capacity building)
  • Advocate to center equity in foundation practices and decision making

Recognizing that many PIs are on their own equity journey, the Kresge Foundation’s Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program9 is providing critical support to the field of equity-focused nonprofit talent and leadership development. Utilizing Community Wealth Partners as Program Manager and Lead Learning Partner, it has provided a curated menu of services to more than 200 Kresge grantees, provided by a cadre of Philanthropic Intermediaries with expertise in racial equity.

FUEL is grounded in the understanding that operationalizing equity in organizations is complex, ongoing work that needs to be resourced in a fashion that is commensurate with the time and commitment that it will require. Advancing equity requires humility and transparency. It also needs to be based in trust to promote an honest appraisal of challenges.

Kresge and Community Wealth Partners have been intentional about field building. FUEL has not only provided resources directly to participating PIs for their own internal professional development, but it has also created space for them to learn from one another and explore opportunities for collaboration and coordination. This experience has also convinced Kresge of the wisdom of engaging PIs even earlier in the process as not only advisers in program design but learning partners in implementation.

Emergent PI Forms and Functions. Just as many established PIs are morphing to more fully embody an equity agenda, a variety of new “hybrid” PI forms are also emerging that have been established to support power building by people of color and other historically marginalized groups. Alex Tom, long time Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, is launching what he refers to as a “c3/c4 ecosystem” called the Center for Empowered Politics10. Similar to the model developed by the Working Families Party, the Center (when fully realized) will include a c3 Education Fund, an affiliated c4, a PAC infrastructure, and a Resilient Strategies LLC Management Services Organization that will also serve as a “grassroots consultancy.” It is an inspiring vision for developing leadership capacity across sectors to be “prepared for all scenarios.” The Center infrastructure will allow multiple funding streams for sponsored projects and “leverage many forms of organizations based on the needs of the moment.” It will also be in the position to offer “pre-apprentice programs” to recruit and support individual young organizers of color drawn to power building work.

Taj James (co-founder of the Movement Strategy Center) and his colleague Rachel Burrows are impatient to broaden the focus of power building activities beyond just political and cultural power to economic power, which they argue is foundational to all other forms of power. They have launched a partnership of three related efforts under the organizational umbrella “Full Spectrum Capital Partners” to target the untouched 95% of philanthropic capital available for values-aligned investment in “collective economic development” with a regional focus. They plan to “use all capital tools available” in order to “create diverse pathways for community ownership and wealth building in ways that strengthen local and indigenous stewardship.”

The national level has also witnessed the emergence of several new organizations (they do not all consider themselves Philanthropic Intermediaries) created and led by people of color and dedicated to taking on PI-type functions specifically to advance the development of racial justice efforts led by people of color. Borealis Philanthropy is based in Minnesota but operates nationally. It is a full-service operation that hosts pooled funds, donor collaboratives, and regrants in addition to providing supportive services to smaller grantees that most foundations could not do on their own. Over its first five years of existence, it has achieved a high profile by focusing on efforts to build the capacity of Black-led organizations and to fight anti-Black racism.

Youth activists have been particularly vocal about the need for appropriate PI structures that will both respect and nurture their leadership. Youth Organize California! (popularly known as YO Cali!) is a statewide network of grassroots youth organizations dedicated to expanding the capacity of young people and organizations to practice transformative youth organizing, build power, and “create long-term transformation in our communities.” It connects more than 70 youth organizing groups around the state, some incorporated and some not. It also works as a re-granter to get resources to those doing organizing outside formal structures. To keep its staff small and run a lean operation, Yo Cali! has chosen to be fiscally sponsored by the Californians for Justice Education Fund rather than seek independent incorporation. It sees itself as accountable both to its funders and to youth organizers and is committed to ensuring that “power goes both ways.”

Considerations for Funders. Community residents and local organizations have long expressed frustration about cultural mismatches and conflicts in trying to work with PIs “parachuting into our neighborhoods.” Foundations have consequently become smarter about working with PIs, and PIs in turn have had to learn how to alter their approach to engage with communities on equal footing. It has also informed a more nuanced understanding of the important roles they can play in regional power building ecosystems. For example, a trusted and experienced regrantor can help to depoliticize how funds are divided and distributed among local recipients

When a foundation engages with a PI, it is not a typical grantee-grantor relationship. The PI is often afforded an unusual degree of insight into the foundation’s internal thinking. If sufficient trust can be developed, PIs can serve as a valuable informal source of advice for both funders and grantees. A trusted PI can speak “uncomfortable truths” in a way any other grantee cannot and provide an invaluable feedback mechanism for institutions that typically receive little in the way of candid critique.

Accountability. Funders need to be open and honest about the level of prescriptiveness they intend. If a PI is viewed as a strategic partner, that changes the nature of the relationship. The PI is not merely an agent of the foundation, but an autonomous organization that is equally accountable both to its funder and to the communities with which it is working. That requires a different kind of foundation oversight.

Adequate Financing. Engaging PIs should not be undertaken as a cost saving measure. Even the most established PIs are chronically undercapitalized. PIs are worthy of General Operating Support in their own right, in addition to any program grants they may receive. Those PIs most committed to centering equity in their work are most concerned about the financial sustainability of their new business model.

Identifying Appropriate PI Partners. Identifying, developing, and growing appropriate PI partners should be an important activity within a foundation’s strategy development. Who has reach? Who has an established constituency? They are unlikely to present themselves fully formed but will require a multi-year investment in their capacity and (perhaps) appropriate local capital infrastructure.

Above all, funders should use this moment of disruption of the “normal” as an opportunity to think differently about inherited philanthropic assumptions, biases, and practices that may be counterproductive as they seek to redistribute and equalize power.


  1. For a more complete introduction to the topic of intermediaries, the following references are recommended: Alice Cottingham (n.d.), “Smarter Relationships, Better Results: Making the most of grantmakers’ work with intermediaries,” Grantmakers for Effective Organizations; “Partnering with Intermediaries,” archived by Grantmakers in the Arts; and Peter Szanton, “Toward More Effective Use of Intermediaries,” Foundation Center Practice Matters Series number 1, 2003.
  2. Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture,” Equity in the Center, 2020.
  3. See Robin Katcher, “Unstill Waters: The Fluid Role of Networks in Social Movements,” Nonprofit Quarterly, 2010; Bill Traynor, “Vertigo and the Intentional Inhabitant: Leadership in a Connected World,” Nonprofit Quarterly, 2009; and Caroline McAndrews, et al., “Structuring Leadership: Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision-Making in Nonprofit Organizations,” New York: Building Movement Project, 2011.
  4. April Nishimura, et al., “Transformational Capacity Building,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2020.
  5. Management Assistance Group (MAG, now known as Change Elemental), “Supporting Emerging Social Justice Groups: Insights and Recommendations on the Ecosystem of Fiscal Sponsors, Incubators, Accelerators and Funders,” New York: The Ford Foundation; and Natalie Bamdad, “Strengthening Social Justice Groups and the Intermediaries That Support Them,” Change Elemental, Washington, D.C., 2018.
  6. Elise Harris Wilkerson, et al., “Capacity Building Needs, Challenges, and Best Practices for Movements, Coalitions and Other Nonprofit Groups: A Field Scan,” Boston: TSNE Mission Works (formerly known as Third Sector New England), 2020.
  7. Jennifer Chandler and Kristen Scott Kennedy, “A Network Approach to Capacity Building,” Washington, D.C.: National Council of Nonprofits, 2015.
  8. Natalie Bamdad and Susan Misra, “Centering Equity in Intermediary Relationships: An Opportunity for Funders,” Washington, D.C.: Change Elemental, 2020.
  9. Lori Bartczak, “Advancing Racial Equity Through Capacity Building: The Kresge Foundation Talent and Leadership Development Efforts,” Washington, D.C: Grantcraft, 2018; and Caroline Altman Smith and Carla Taylor, “Strengthening the Ecosystem of Capacity-Building Service Providers: A Case for Why It Matters,” The Foundation Review, 11(4), 2019.
  10. Alex T. Tom, Building Healthy and Durable Movement Ecosystems: A “Workforce Development Plan” for the 21st Century, San Francisco: Center for Empowered Politics, 2019.

This article was abstracted from a longer report prepared by the author for The California Endowment entitled Philanthropic Intermediaries in this Moment of National Reckoning (2020). It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Beatriz Solis, former Director of Building Healthy Communities—South. She personally commissioned this study, but sadly did not live to see its completion. She was a creative and inspirational leader who was always seeking new ways to extend TCE’s thinking and practice in the accomplishment of its mission, particularly for the benefit of the most historically disenfranchised communities.