Forging Funder-Intermediary-Evaluator Partnerships: Five Tensions to Consider

Meg Long and Clare Nolan

Complex change strategies can benefit from the expertise of funders, intermediaries, and evaluators, in addition to community partners. This collective expertise is even more essential today — as more funders acknowledge the complexity of social problems and target investments to improve outcomes for entire communities, rather than direct funds to support single organizations.

But harnessing this collective expertise requires navigating and overcoming common partnership tensions. What are common tensions in funder-intermediary-evaluator partnerships, and how can we overcome these tensions to harness collective expertise to advance complex change strategies?  Drawing from our own experiences with this partner-triad dynamic, as well as from the literature and case examples, we’ve identified five common tensions — and some recommendations for how funders, intermediaries, and evaluators can work through these challenges.

Tension #1: Who holds the power?

Power dynamics are nothing new in philanthropy; funders control resources and therefore hold power. They decide who gets funded, for how much, and with what level of autonomy. As such, they typically hold the greatest power in funder-intermediary-evaluator partnerships. But evaluators hold power as well. They gather information and, through analysis, make judgments about what works and what challenges are emerging. Intermediaries may hold the least power in such relationships, and often are concerned about judgments funders and evaluators are making about their work. In some instances, the power that intermediaries hold in implementing the initiative can be quite strong, especially if they control the regranting “purse-strings.”

Given the lead role funders play, they are well-positioned to choose the best way to structure these relationships. These scenarios may include:

  • the funder’s level of experience with a particular intermediary or evaluator;
  • each party’s expertise in handling different roles;
  • the nature and focus of the evaluation learning agenda; and/or
  • the degree of separation desired between grantee funding and grantee capacity building.

Tension #2: That’s my role!

When people work together, it helps to have agreement on who holds what responsibilities. This is no less true when funders, intermediaries, and evaluators partner with one another. Within the learning process, the roles of funders, intermediaries, and evaluators differ. While funders are expected to learn from the work taking place, intermediaries and evaluators may see themselves as facilitating the learning of others. Tensions can emerge over how learning is organized and who is in the lead with what audience, be it the funder, grantees, or broader field. Who influences initiative strategy — the design and implementation of the grantmaking approach — can also be contested within the context of complex change initiatives.

At the outset of a triad engagement, a conversation among partners can align expectations about roles with regard to learning, strategy, and other anticipated areas of ambiguity. However, overlaps in roles or questions about responsibilities may emerge along the way, and routine check-ins on areas in question provide opportunities to recalibrate, make adjustments, and ease or prevent tensions.

Tension #3: Can I really trust you?

Without trust, it can be difficult to forge effective partnerships and foster the open dialogue needed to make complex strategies work effectively in practice. For instance:

  • Intermediaries may hesitate to fully discuss the challenges they encounter in working with grantees, due to concerns about repercussions to their funding and reputational standing.
  • Evaluators may express concern about sharing findings that may compromise the trust they have developed with evaluation stakeholders.
  • Funders need time to develop relationships and assess how assertive they can be in providing feedback and guidance, and in discussing internal pressures relevant to the initiative.

Early conversations, during which partners share perspectives and goals, serve multiple purposes: setting a tone and precedent of open dialogue, bridging understanding of each player’s strengths and viewpoints, and identifying opportunities for collaboration and needs for clear roles and boundaries.

Tension #4: Wait, how do we communicate?

Open dialogue among partners is essential to collaboration and takes time, commitment, and trust to develop. Partners involved in complex change strategies often have multiple individual touchpoints with one another. Yet even when multiple touchpoints are in place, information flow can be difficult to manage, with partners carrying out independent responsibilities that may inadvertently affect the activities of another.

During the planning stages of an engagement, partners should determine routine communication points and designate a partner to initiate them. These meetings can help build and deepen trust through open dialogue, and listening can encourage partners to go beyond “comfortable” conversations to address concerns and settle differences.

Tension #5: Impact…It’s on the way!

Funders often expect to see results at a pace inconsistent with the time needed to realize systems change on the ground — matters of years rather than months. Funders’ program staff and intermediaries may overstate potential impacts — or the timeline in which they can be achieved — to obtain or maintain support for a programmatic investment. Once funding has been secured, tactics quickly shift to managing expectations for impact. This dynamic places pressure on all partners, including evaluators who may be tasked with helping stakeholders such as foundation trustees understand what impacts are reasonable to expect given funding investment levels and time horizons.

Candid discussions about hopes and realistic expectations within the timeframe of the investment and data collection are not only essential for establishing common understanding among partners, but can open the engagement to creative strategizing and enhanced learning. In addition, for ambitious goals of broad or deep impact, involving evaluation partners at the strategy development stage helps identify options and accurate timelines for measuring longer-term change or contributions to population-level shifts.

Weaving together partners is no small task. It should be approached carefully and thoughtfully, and be informed by the insights and lessons of others.  By minding common tensions and sharing knowledge about what it takes to make these partnerships work in practice, we can achieve systems changes leading to better results for communities. We invite you to learn more about how funders, intermediaries, and evaluators can partner for success in our new report.

Meg Long, president of Equal Measure, and Clare Nolan, co-founder of EngageR+D, served as co-evaluators, along with Harder+Company Community Research, of the James Irvine Foundation’s Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence. The Irvine Foundation funded this report.

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