As an organization that raises funds primarily in the United States, then distributes those funds to groups working in the global South (largely Southeast Asia), our role is sometimes summed up as merely an added layer of bureaucracy, the “middleman,” the intermediary. 

The voices come from all over. From Silicon Valley types pushing for data-driven solutions, to condemnation from journalists like Ken Stern, former head of NPR, warning against millions of Americans “donating to good causes to no good end.” This middleman, they argue, is unnecessary.

Local actors in the global South, and even our own partners, describe the challenges of working with intermediaries who want to engage them (local organizations) as implementers who are tasked with implementing the strategy of the donor, leaving them out of the conversation completely. Most recently, we heard a story about a partner who was engaged in the proposal development process to demonstrate the inclusion of “local voices,” and – once funds were awarded – came to discover that their engagement shifted to a mere service delivery contract.

It is clear that the role of the intermediary is complicated, sometimes troublesome. Yet it is not a complete waste of time – at least, we don’t think so. Partners Asia is a grassroots-centric philanthropic intermediary with deep expertise and experience in building equitable North-South relationships. With more than 20 years of experience, we know an intermediary can play an essential role in shifting power and advancing issues of racial and gender equity amongst some of the most marginalized groups. We also believe that as more and more organizations within the United States look to advance issues of power and racial equity in their giving both here and abroad, the role of a certain kind of intermediary will be more important than ever before.

As Angie Chen, director of programs at The Libra Foundation argues, philanthropy is often too far removed from the reality of the communities that it purports to be helping. In these circumstances, the intermediary has a vital role. So how do we ensure that the role of the intermediary is transformative, rather than transactional? We highlight three characteristics we every good intermediary should have. 


There’s a common saying that an expert is just somebody from out of town, and that has certainly been the norm in a lot of development work – whether domestic or abroad. Yet this kind of expertise-driven strategy often takes leadership away from local groups and community leaders. It also begs the question – “who are the real experts?”

Partners Asia is clear that we are not the experts. Local leaders know best about what’s needed on the ground. They are the closest to the issues. They know the history of how things happen. And they have the relationships to get things done. Our job is to listen deeply, stay humble, and leverage our resources to support locally-driven strategies.

Look for intermediaries who place a heavy emphasis on humility and who acknowledge importance of input from local issue area experts, academics, and frontline leaders that live in and intimately know the community.


“Intermediaries are catalytic to power-building because they reach across issues and geographies,” says Crystal Hayling, executive director of The Libra Foundation. “They build strong partnerships that reflect a deep understanding of groups in the community and their needs.”

This is true, particularly when the intermediary is proactively working to build well-founded relationships with local nonprofits, community groups, and otherwise marginalized populations. These relationships are at the core of everything we do. We conduct an annual anonymous survey with our partners to assess each relationship and whether or not our partners are getting the support they need from us, as part of our Learning and Impact Evaluation. We also support programs and activities that help to foster a strong network of relationships amongst our partners.

A good intermediary is one that practices building deep and trusting relationships, has a sophisticated understanding of power dynamics, and provides infrastructure and opportunities for collaboration amongst partners.

Streamlined Processes and No Red Tape

One of the biggest complaints that we hear from our partners on the ground is how long it takes for resources to get to them once the donor agrees to invest in their work. And when resources do come, they are often structured in a way that makes it virtually impossible to meet the community's needs.

Partners Asia has tried to develop grantmaking processes that are responsive to the context in which the funds are being granted. For example, we process emergency grants in under five days – often with just a phone call and one-page summary.

Effective intermediaries are not governed by top-down, bureaucratic processes. They are nimble and responsive and ideally, offer flexible and unrestricted funding. 

Not all intermediaries are the same. But working with the ones that embrace these three characteristics offers a huge opportunity. Not just to emerging/overlooked groups and underfunded sectors, but to the social change ecosystem at large. As the Libra Foundation – who committed $10 million to 14 community-accountable intermediaries in late 2021 – observed, “we’re seeing more coordinated donor organizing efforts, accountability initiatives, space for tough conversations, and more loving organizational cultures.” It’s an approach that might well lead to the sort of lasting, transformative, and truly inclusive change we hope to see in this world.