Do We Need “Middleware” Organizations?

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By Maxyne Finkelstein

Recent discussions about the value of national and international organizations that manage donations lead to a general conversation about the value of structures that serve a specific niche between the fundraiser and the expenditure of a grant. Along with the obvious compliance issues to consider one needs to question whether streamlining structures is always the best route to improvement. In the context of technology middleware is the bridge that connects software and hardware and is often overlooked or ignored in terms of the value it serves in strengthening the relationship between the two.

Today the value of the “middleware” as an organizational construct is often questioned in relation to the perceived duplication of overhead and use of volunteer resources. It is ironic that many of these nonprofit organizations positioned in the middle, were built with the purpose of convening communities of the like minded and willing, mitigating duplication, encouraging best practices in the field, and providing wisdom, information and expertise that will enhance the value of the donation and the donor experience.

A definitive statement often used in evaluating middleware organizations is that if you destroyed it today you likely rebuild it as it is. In taking the view from the balcony three stories up, a good strategic view may lead one to question whether that truism is relevant today. If we were to rebuild organizations how could we create the best of… in the field, we are exploring. There is a large gap between needing an organization to fill a void and building centres of excellence. We have the wisdom to know that many of the entities that serve us in the Jewish community have “good bones” and just need renovation while others are due for a “gut renovation.” The questions that then arises is how do we differentiate the two and where do we find the expertise to undertake the renovation at any level?

One of the missing elements in the Jewish (and general) organizational field is universal standards that help us define good organizations and those worthy of continued support. Organizations and bureaucracy in general resists change and risk taking often creates internal anxiety that many leaders cannot tolerate. At the same time the organizations in the middle (more than the fundraiser or service deliverer) should be the most risk proficient as they are called on every day to justify their existence and need to demonstrate flexibility and openness in order to continue to create value. These organizations also have the capacity to be the collectors and disseminators of vast quantities of data using the most innovative technology and bring this treasure trove to the field to enhance service at many levels. The type of leadership and innovation required today in these organizations is different than in the past as expectations change, communication methods evolve and the generation assuming leadership is demanding high quality concierge service.

The combination of oversight, data management, experience sharing, education, and guidance on choices are all critical; collective experience well considered will usually outweigh individual instinct in a field where similar decisions are made on an ongoing basis. To truly serve this purpose the organization must stand out at the level where one would be prepared to pay for the service if it was a market choice, rather than an obligation. Additionally, the organization in the middle must be prepared to respond to the ongoing need to justify value while listening and adapting rather than adopting a defensive stance with those who question. Perhaps this is the conversation we should be starting in the new year.

Maxyne Finkelstein is President, Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.