Imagine you run a community-based service provider. You and your staff are deeply committed to your community, and you have a great deal of cumulative experience in your field. However, you find that your staff don't have all the skills necessary to respond to the changing nature of your client base, you need new curricula and/or service models, not to mention a total technology upgrade, and you want to collaborate with other local organizations to expand access to critical services but just don't have the time to pull together a serious coalition.

Your local community foundation may have some basic "organizational effectiveness" programs (grant writing, Board development, financial management), but you need support that is more specifically tailored to the unique realities of your field. Where can you go for help?

You're in luck. Many service delivery fields have organizations, sometimes structured as membership associations, called "intermediaries."

Intermediary organizations were first established in the community development field, driven by two factors: the increasing complexity of housing development and finance, and the central role played by the federal government in affordable housing and community development. Organizations in this field needed a wide variety of training for their staff and needed a go-between, or "intermediary," to facilitate their access to federal funding. Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation ("NeighborWorks") and the Local Initiatives Support Collaborative (LISC) are examples of national community development intermediaries, and there are many state and municipal support organizations as well.

Today, in fields as diverse as adult literacy, homeless services, workforce development, or library services, there are local, statewide, and national intermediaries that provide a wide range of services to the organizations that do the direct work with clients in communities.

These intermediaries potentially provide services at the practitioner level (training for both new and veteran staff), the program or organizational level (support for strategic planning or technology infrastructure development), and the system level (standards of effective practice, facilitated collaboration, or the engagement of national funders that are beyond the reach of local providers). The intermediaries have an enormous and, importantly, field-specific impact on the quality and sustainability of services provided at the local level by their members or affiliates.

The intermediaries have an enormous and, importantly, field-specific impact on the quality and sustainability of services provided at the local level by their members or affiliates.

There are two issues that constrain the effectiveness of these intermediaries. First, many provider associations who are perfectly positioned to play this role don't think strategically enough about the needs of their field and the programmatic responses that would make a real difference. Second, and perhaps more challenging, is the perception among many funders that every dime spent on organizations that offer capacity building for providers is a dime not spent on direct services to people in need.

While I am sympathetic to this concern, it does not recognize the significant positive impact the intermediaries have on the quality and sustainability of those direct services. Both government and philanthropic investment in these capacity building entities is money extremely well spent, and that has significant leverage, if one takes a more systemic and long-term view.