A while ago, I wrote about how intermediary organizations are like mycelium, which is the rootlike structure of mushrooms. Like mycelium, these orgs are vital to the nonprofit field, as they provide several critical functions, including bringing funding to other nonprofits, connecting orgs to one another, disseminating vital information, fostering communication, and mobilizing orgs for advocacy. And they even help organizations at the end of their lives to exit gracefully, the way mushrooms help break down decaying matters and return them to the earth to feed and generate new life.
Yes, that was a very nerdy post, even nerdier than my piece that employs Star Trek analogies to talk about the future of the nonprofit sector. (Nerd alert: one of the newer Star Trek shows, Discovery, has a technology that uses a vast invisible mycelium-in-space network to warp its eponymous spaceship instantaneously anywhere in the universe, and one of its main characters is named Paul Stamets, after the legendary mushroom expert).
But anyway, I’m bringing this up because over the past several years, intermediary organizations—which include state nonprofit associations, capacity building orgs, passthrough funders, collectives of orgs rallied around a particular field or issue such as art or climate change, etc.—have been even more critical. During the pandemic, when there was chaos everywhere, these organizations became essential hubs of information, resources, and action. They got funding as well as food, PPEs, and other supplies to nonprofits and to community members. They mobilized and organized nonprofits to speak up collectively, as well as represent nonprofits who were too busy dealing with increased demands for services to be able to speak for themselves. The results of many of these organizations’ work can be seen today.
Which is why it has been so disappointing and frustrating to me to hear, and to see, that many funders are going back to their same habits of ignoring and deprioritizing the funding of intermediary organizations. Several intermediary organizations just told me that their current funders just announced they will be phasing out funding. At a recent conference I spoke at, arts intermediaries got together to discuss the grim situation and how they needed to adapt.
Intermediaries have always had trouble with funding. This is due to a combination of several factors. One is that their missions are not considered very appealing when compared to more “heart-tugging” direct causes. Two is that with society’s general disdain of “overhead” and “indirect” expenses, intermediaries’ work many seem nebulous or superfluous. And three is that funders and donors like outcomes that are short-term and easy to understand, and oftentimes the outcomes that intermediaries are working towards—such as mobilizing their members to change inequitable laws—may be neither simple nor short-term.
The pandemic, though, should have revealed to funders how pivotal intermediaries are, and that they should be invested in with MORE funding, not less. Besides their vital role in the sector when things seem “normal,” it is foolish to believe that the pandemic is done and that nothing like that will ever happen again. We should be operating with the mindset that the future will include mass disruptive events such as other pandemics, natural disasters, etc. While intermediaries have been playing pivotal roles during COVID, the lack of investment in them before the pandemic meant many organizations were stressed to the breaking point. We should not take them for granted, and instead should be strengthening them now in anticipation of the future.
Also, elections are coming up and democracy hangs in the balance. Intermediaries mobilize organizations and people around policy and advocacy, help develop the capacity of organizations so they can help their constituents to vote, allow donors and funders to get money out quickly to the nonprofits that could do the most effective work, support candidates from marginalized communities to be elected, etc. They are absolutely essential at this moment when democracy in the US is facing an existential threat.
To the funders who are cutting back funding to intermediaries, or who are thinking about doing it, please reconsider. You are weakening a pivotal element of the nonprofit sector. If your excuse is that “there is only so much money to go around,” you know this is not true. Over 1.4 Trillion US dollars are stored up in foundation endowments and Donor-Advised Funds. Increase your payout rates so that you can fund direct service organizations, as well as all the intermediary organizations that are essential to the effectiveness of our sector in solving entrenched problems.
Nonprofits, advocate for the intermediary organizations in your field and geographic area. Think back to all the support they’ve provided you over the years, especially over the past three years of the pandemic. Ask these intermediaries what you can do to help. Join as members (and pay your membership dues!), and encourage other organizations to do the same. And before I get annoying comments about how some intermediaries take up too much funding and don’t provide much value, etc., yes, like with everything else, there are good orgs and crappy ones. Support the ones that are doing good.
Intermediary organizations, you are awesome and so essential to our sector. Thank you for the past three years, when many of you worked overtime to support nonprofits that were stretched to the limit, while being stretched to the limit yourselves. Please do not just learn to “adapt” to many funders’ narrow thinking in reducing funding to you. Do not accept the narrative perpetuated by funders that funding is limited. Speak up, educate people, write open letters to funders, write op-eds in the media, mobilize your members to advocate on your behalf.
Intermediary organizations, like mycelium, play a vital role in connecting, nourishing, and sustaining nonprofits and communities. Because they are often invisible, we frequently take them for granted. We need to ensure they have the resources they need to continue weaving the network of change that allows our sector to boldly go into the future.