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There are currently more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States.
One important type is the field-building intermediary, which engages and coordinates nonprofits, funders, and other stakeholders to deal with critical, unaddressed needs in a field, such as building partnerships or sharing best practices.
While these organizations can create transformative impact at a systems level, they require thoughtful consideration, especially from funders, who play a pivotal role during concept development and early-stage growth.
Funders often start field-building work with a strong, sometimes insular point of view on what the solution should look like. But investing time to source ideas and secure buy-in from the others working on a specific social issue can increase an intermediary’s likelihood of success.
Don’t underestimate the importance and challenges of finding the right leaders and setting them up for success. Leadership characteristics required for a field-building intermediary usually include diplomacy, entrepreneurial management, and technical skills. Funders should also ensure that leaders can engage with and shape initial strategies so that they understand and take ownership of the program goals.
Starting a new organization to build a field is a bold and difficult step, but more than a few donors have been willing to try. New analysis by The Bridgespan Group finds that among donors making “big bets” of $10 million or more to achieve social change goals, a significant number—representing approximately 14 percent of large gifts in Bridgespan’s database—use those bets to found a new organization. And a number of these are field-building intermediaries.
New organizations are sometimes so closely associated with the founding donor that other funders may be reluctant to get involved. Founding donors may need to choose between maintaining their exclusive stamp on a new organization and inviting others to join.
After the value proposition and leadership are in place, it can still take years to create the right operational capacity and sustainable funding structure. The reward for such demanding work, however, lies in the chance to accomplish ambitious goals.