New Bridgespan Group Research Identifies Key “Field Building” Activities to Effect Large-Scale Social Change

03/30/2020 |


Study offers guidance for funders on how to create conditions to accelerate a field’s trajectory toward population-level change
BOSTON, MA—March 30, 2020—The Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, today published a study, Field Building for Population Level Change: How funders and practitioners can increase the odds of success. In response to many funders and nonprofit leaders raising concerns that an organization-by-organization approach to solve complex social problems is insufficient when seeking population-level change, a team at Bridgespan researched the successes and struggles surrounding “field building” in the social change sector as a pathway to impact at scale. 

Bridgespan defines a field as a set of individuals and organizations working to address a common social issue or problem, often developing and using a common knowledge base. Although there are two distinct methods to build a field’s capacity—strengthening organizations or strengthening connections and collaboration—the team’s research was focused on the latter. They define “field building” as the activities or investments that unlock a field’s progress toward impact at scale.

According to Lija Farnham, a co-author of the study, “Despite growing agreement among practitioners that achieving population-level change often requires meaningful and intentional collaboration and coordination across a field’s actors, few efforts of this sort are achieving impact at scale. In our work, we have heard from funders and practitioners alike that scaling individual organizations is insufficient to solve complex, evolving social problems. In large measure, a lack of shared understanding about what it takes to advance fields thwarts such efforts.” The current pandemic crisis that we are now in is the most recent reminder of the need for effective coordination and collaboration to address our most challenging problems.

To support this theory, Bridgespan conducted  six months of research on the successes and struggles surrounding field building in the social change sector, including an in-depth review of existing literature on field building, an analysis of more than 35 fields, and interviews with more than 36 field leaders and funders undertaking the work of “field building.”

The study reports on:
  • The common patterns for how fields progress and evolve towards impact at scale
  • What field-building activities can be undertaken to accelerate a field’s trajectory 
  • How field-building efforts can center equity in service of population-level change
“Our review of the literature and 35 fields underscored that even the most ‘successful’ fields don’t achieve true population change if solutions are designed for the ‘average,’ which tends to exclude the voices of the communities most affected by a problem. Many funders and field leaders noted that the most promising emerging efforts were those in which power was being redistributed and the communities most proximate played a central role in creating the solutions,” said Zoe Tamaki, a Bridgespan consultant who coauthored the report.

Citing the critical role of funders in creating the conditions in which all field builders can effectively engage the fields in which they work, Bridgespan’s work also highlights a set of key principles for funders to embrace:
  •  Take a holistic view: A big picture lens that considers all the actors in a field, including other funders, as well as related fields, systems, and movements, makes it possible to see connection points with other efforts that could enable or hinder their work.
  • Balance being proactive and being reactive: Pursuing both efforts that “till the soil” to create conditions for change and those that take advantage of ripe “moments in time” for making headway unlocks the greatest potential for impact. Foundations can up their reactive quotient by working indirectly through grassroots regrantors and nonprofits that may be able to quickly identify and address needs and opportunities on the ground—this may be particularly salient today as funders seek to respond quickly to changing landscapes and challenges.
  • Problem solve through inclusive decision-making: Empowering fellow travelers within the field and those most proximate to the problem to lead and co-create alongside them increasingly enables sticky change.
  • Commit to the long-term: Committing to fund the work for an extended period of time (often at least a decade) enables the deep relationship building that powers field-based change and allows for the nonlinear progress that defines nearly every field success story.
“We admit that moving from principles to effective, sustained practice can be daunting. But we hope that this report can serve as a helpful launching pad for further reflection and discussion, as it is within our own organization and work to support social impact leaders achieve population-level results grounded in equity-centered approaches,” said Farnham.

 To learn more, read Bridgespan’s full report:
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, philanthropists and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With offices in Boston, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, and Johannesburg, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, impact investing, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.

Show Comments