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Last November, MMI’s Director of Grantmaking and Partnerships, Dr. Rychetta Watkins, attended the annual Grantmakers in the Arts Conference, which took place in the virtual world for a second year due to the ongoing pandemic. Dr. Watkins, along with MMI Executive Director Amber Hamilton, developed and hosted a panel on the topic of intermediary funders in the grantmaking space, centering the unique perspective of intermediary funders. Also featured on the panel were leaders from two Mid-South nonprofits, including Janine Christiano, Strategic Funding and Initiatives Manager at Metro Arts Nashville and Carlton Turner, founder of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production (Sipp Culture). Read on for Dr. Watkins’ recap of the panel discussion, including the context in which intermediary funders operate, the benefits of this model, and the lessons traditional funders can learn from intermediaries. 


In a normal year, people from all across the U.S. and territories attend GIA. It’s usually a very eclectic group. The conference usually includes some truly great excursions—if you're lucky enough to sign up for one of them before all the slots fill. There are panels and workshops at cultural institutions in the host city.

GIA is a great opportunity to learn about community arts gems, hear from the people who are doing amazing work in their communities, and discover new work, new initiatives, and how people around the nation are trying to move the needle in terms of how we fund and resource arts organizations. The other great thing about the conference is that there are spaces for people to meet and talk about their concerns. I particularly enjoy the women of color arts administrators group.

The conference is so much more than just walking around a bunch of different convention halls. Yes, you do some of that, but even the presentations are so much more varied. There’s a great mix of traditional conference presentations and panels by big national foundations, but also community foundations, small philanthropic funds, and nonprofit regrantors like us. It’s a space for those of us in the grantmaking space to consider the fundamental issues with the way the traditional partners operate, and to talk about issues with philanthropy and imagine more equitable ways to move philanthropy forward. 

Centering Marginalized Voices 

In planning for this panel, we were inspired by the concept of centering "marginal voices," drawing on Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua’s scholarship about Latina identity. Their work centers these perspectives using the metaphor of a border—de-centering the American colonialist experience and centering instead the experiences of indigenous and Latino people, recognizing that culture does not respect geopolitical boundaries.

As we developed this conversation, we really focused on centering the voices of intermediary funders, who are often marginalized by traditional philanthropy. Instead of saying, "Please pay attention to us. We do good work too," let's just start with the presumption that we're doing amazing work. Let's focus on the benefits of being an intermediary, and share some of the lessons intermediaries can teach traditional funders. 

Some context: Intermediary funders typically function in the role to act as a bridge between a larger often national funder and smaller organizations who are doing the work on the ground. Intermediaries can work in a lot of different ways, but the idea is for a larger funder to be able to fund an intermediary to fund. Funding them to then turn around and actually use the network of organizations that they work with to be able to fund people who are doing the work on the ground. Working with intermediaries is an attempt to tip-toe away from the Request for Proposal (RFP) model, which often attracts people who are already in the know—people who might have formerly worked for a foundation, or who are already connected. It doesn't really get to the grassroots folks, who are not in those spaces.  

As Amber and I were thinking about who we could bring on to participate in this panel, we considered a few factors. First of all, Metro Arts Nashville and Sipp Culture were comparable to MMI, in terms of size and their role as intermediaries. They were also southern, and that was key because the South, as a region, is underfunded—and that’s compounded by the fact that the arts are underfunded. As Southern folks working in the arts, we feel acutely that lack of under-resourcing. We thought, "Well, that's even more reason to focus on other intermediaries who are doing this kind of work in the South." 

Laboratories on the Ground 

Obviously there are many benefits to this model. First of all, you’re funding work that's already happening. It's not like somebody is coming up with an initiative, or a program, or an organization in order to do work that you, a major funder, have said needs to be done. You're trading on the knowledge of that intermediary in the field. You're trading on their knowledge of the geography, and their understanding of the work that needs to be done in order to make a better investment.

Second, intermediaries can be locally focused. There is a move right now toward hyperlocality, and, as one of the panelists put it, all artists are local to some community. Their work may be national, but they themselves live in a community. By funding intermediaries, you have an opportunity to nurture art and artists at the root. I thought that was a really, really exciting way to think about it. 

Because of their proximity to the work, they are also very clued into the ecosystem of that location, and are an important support for that ecosystem. Intermediaries tend to be kind of a center of gravity for creatives—as well as organizations—regardless of who they fund. They bring people together who can, in turn, provide the foundation for many other kinds of collaborations.

Finally, intermediaries set the standard and provide a model for what change looks like. They tend to have nontraditional grantmaking and grant reporting practices that reduce the burden on the grantee partners and elevate their voices. 

In the panel, Carlton said, "Our organizations are laboratories on the ground, setting the standards and example for what change looks like. Be the model. Don't wait for it." So, we have to be the model for how this work should be done. He really challenged us to not wait for the big investment. Don't wait for recognition. Continue to do what we're doing, because we are the model for the way that this work should be done. 

The Takeaway

It’s really critical that we, as intermediaries, are up-front about the work that we do and the role that we play in the larger nonprofit ecosystem. I think a lot of nonprofit funders, a lot of intermediaries, aren't really forthright because “intermediary” is seen as a nebulous term. That becomes a vicious cycle. If you don't talk about it, then it's hard for people to understand what you’re doing. 

The other key message is that intermediary funders should not wait to act. We're funded to fund, and we have to have our eye on what's coming in the door as we figure out what can go out again. In some ways, no matter what we have to give, it's more than there was before. So, instead of waiting for some pie-in-the-sky moment, get started with what you have. Then let the work speak for itself.


Photo from Grantmakers in the Arts