Important Characteristics of an Intermediary Organization

Sam Piha, a veteran of the afterschool field and founder of Temescal Associates, recently developed a paper on intermediaries for Putnam Consulting Group and The Cleveland Foundation. Sam interviewed me by email about the important role that intermediaries play in collective impact efforts. It’s a conversation worth sharing. Stay tuned as we roll out the rest of the conversation in the coming days.

Piha: What do you believe are the most important characteristics that one should look for when doing a search for an intermediary organization?

Pittman: This is a very good question.  It’s easy to answer the question with a tautology:  The most important characteristics are the ability to perform the 6 functions.  The question answered by assessing an existing backbone organization’s ability to execute the functions is How Effective?. The question answered by intermediaries’ ability to perform the backbone functions is How Ready?  Based on both a literature review and our extensive field experience, we developed a list of 32 specific capacities (e.g. facilitate strategic planning, respect our decision-making process, mirror our geographic footprint, use data for making decisions, disseminate findings without judgment or blame).  Rather than pre-group these, we use factor analysis to identify the clusters for each community.  In the most recent use, the analysis extracted five clusters which were  

  • staff skills (e.g., experienced staff who can facilitate, plan, advocate, use data, communicate)
  • connecting (e.g., with influential leaders at different levels, with similar work happening at different levels)
  • capacity (e.g., organizational capacity to be accountable, convene, be a fiscal home, ensure dedicated staffing, be trusted with the work)
  • funding (e.g., help acquire funding for the infrastructure and the action plan)
  • team work (e.g., help establish guidelines for governing, align efforts, broker competing priorities)

The respondents in this survey process provided information that rated individual intermediaries on these strengths categories. That information also allowed us to calculate the importance of each of the strengths.  Capacity, connecting, and staff skills were the top three with teamwork coming in fourth.  I would agree with this ordering.