Resonance in stakeholder ecology

The Oak Foundation commissioned in 2017 a study on how to work effectively with intermediaries.

One way that donors attempt to deal with an increasingly complex and ambitious agenda for change is to work with intermediary organizations. Intermediaries can complement the processes and leverage the resources of funders. Ultimately, they can help increase philanthropic impact, especially in complex and dynamic settings. As such intermediaries are gaining in size and strategic importance.

In practice, intermediaries can fulfil many, often overlapping, functions ranging from rather straightforward arrangements with a narrow scope to highly complex structures with a broad scope. Thus, donors face a wide range of strategic options and organizational choices when working with intermediaries.

The goal of this study is to identify key factors of success and practical processes that enable funders to engage effectively with intermediaries. It does this primarily by: (1) drawing on philanthropic and management literature; (2) reviewing evaluations and case studies of intermediaries; and (3) interviewing and surveying donor and intermediary experts. This study is part of a learning process at the Oak Foundation and provides an external view to aid Oak in the development of its thinking.

The study concludes that it is essential to: 

  • Understand and respond to the complex relationships of various stakeholders. Relationships between funders, intermediaries and grantees, as well as other key stakeholders, can be complex and interdependent. They can vary and overlap in a field. Therefore, one needs to develop a deep understanding of the dynamics between stakeholders and within networks. In this report, we refer to this as the “stakeholder ecology”.
  • Manage the tensions that funders and intermediaries experience. When working with intermediaries, there are tensions driven by issues of overhead cost, accountability, competition, power dynamics, organizational nimbleness, group think and organizational health from funders via intermediaries to grantees. Resolving these connected tensions is a continuous leadership challenge.
  • Have clarity when choosing the right type of intermediary approach. There are many different types of intermediaries. Therefore, it is critical to match a clear purpose with the right type of intermediary relationship to minimize demands on leadership and administration. Thus, one needs to have a clear sense of the purpose, leadership, capabilities and governance of an intermediary in a stakeholder ecology and over the lifetime of initiatives.
  • Develop effective strategies to manage change and relationships between funders and intermediaries. This study points at the need for pragmatic coping-strategies to deal with the coordination and systemic impact of complex change agendas involving intermediaries. Mastering such coping-strategies is more an art than a science. Fortunately, one can draw on a wide range of experiences and insights from the philanthropic literature, case studies, evaluations and academic and management literature when looking for good practices.
  • Find synergies or better “resonance” among different actors, strategies, processes and structures. Working effectively with intermediaries calls for a “resonance” among the different actors, strategies, processes and structures in the stakeholder ecology. This resonance needs to be established vertically from funder via intermediary to sub-grantees and horizontally among funders as most intermediaries also act as a vehicle for funder cooperation. The notion of resonance is operationalized in this study with the help of frameworks and checklists that combine organizational and strategic questions.

The summary of the report can be downloaded here.