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. Intermediaries may hold the least power in such relationships, and often are concerned about judgments funders and evaluators are making about their work.

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.

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.

Tension #4: Wait, how do we communicate?
Open dialogue among partners is essential to collaboration and takes time, commitment, and trust to develop.

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.

Read the full article about funder-intermediary-evaluator partnerships by Meg Long and Clare Nolan at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.