March 22, 2023

Citing Field Catalysts as ‘High Leverage Philanthropic Investment’, New Bridgespan Research Offers Guidance to NGOs and Funders on Effecting Equitable Systems Change by Investing in Field Catalysts

A recent survey of field catalyst leaders reveals a median annual funding gap of only $2.5 million; if fully funded, leaders say they are confident they will achieve their missions.

BOSTON, MA—March 21, 2023—New research by The Bridgespan Group examines how organizations they describe as field catalysts can play a critical role in effecting equitable systems change. In two aligned articles, one aimed at NGO leaders, Field Catalyst Origin Stories: Lessons for Systems Change Leaders) the other for funders, Funding Field Catalysts from Origins to Revolutionizing the World Bridgespan makes the case for supporting these organizations and offers guidance to leaders and funders on how to work toward achieving shared goals.

According to Lija Farnham, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the work, “All of our research indicates one key truth: field catalysts are among the highest leverage investments that philanthropy can make when it comes to equitable systems change.” The articles build on previous work describing a distinct, critical, and an often unseen (especially by funders) set of roles field catalysts play, including diagnosing and assessing the core problem and full landscape of actors devoted to it; connecting and organizing actors around a shared goal; advocating or shining a spotlight on the issue; and filling any critical gaps in the collective effort.

Bridgespan surveyed more than 100 such catalysts across fields and interviewed approximately 40 leaders to better understand what it takes for field catalysts to launch and thrive. “We are deeply grateful to all our funders, in particular the Skoll Foundation, whose commitment to spurring real and lasting change on a large scale has been a constant source of inspiration. They supported us in identifying and accessing the leaders we contacted and provided the resources to conduct this investigation,” says Farnham.

About ninety percent of those surveyed said they could achieve their systems change goals within two decades if provided the necessary, consistent support. Roughly 70 percent named funding as one of their greatest challenges. Interviewees reported a median annual funding gap of $2.5 million preventing them from achieving their missions. According to Emma Nothmann, Farnham’s co-author and a partner at Bridgespan, “With the median budget size of the surveyed group at $5 million, which is small relative to the outsized impact field catalysts have, closing that funding gap could be a relative bargain.”

The research showed that no matter the area of focus, the field catalysts reported facing four common challenges:

  • Talent Constraints: Fifty-seven percent report that they struggle with significant internal capacity issues.
  • Measuring Impact: Nearly half said they found it difficult to measure their impact for funders. Systems change is a multi-decade effort and field catalysts need to rely on a variety of measurement indicators that reflect the scope of progress of the ecosystem overall.
  • Finding Balance: About half described difficulty balancing the work—having to deal with the urgency of the existential threats while also raising enough funding for the next year of work, for example.
  •  Lack of Sufficient, Long-term, Flexible Funding: As one interviewee said, “Being behind the scenes is lethal from a fundraising perspective. How do you tell your story when the story is by design invisible?”

Bridgespan outlines ways in which field catalysts can sidestep these challenges. “However,” says Co-author and Bridgespan Manager Kevin Crouch, “We believe much of the burden to overcome these hurdles really falls on funders not nonprofit leaders. Funders create the conditions for success.” To illustrate, Bridgespan’s reporting highlights current funding practices that can impede progress such as: not valuing a leader’s expertise and proximate experience; not authentically embracing a leader’s desire to think bigger/holistically; and, most common, funding that falls short of enabling field catalysts to become what the field truly needs.

Systems change leaders indicated that philanthropy is most supportive when it funds and shares power in ways that foster collaboration and shared learning among all actors in the ecosystem. “Keeping power dynamics in view and listening to what leaders conveyed in our survey informed our core guidance for funders on how to create the conditions for field catalysts to thrive,” says Crouch.

Farnham summarized the research saying, "Field catalysts are not only driving systems change work across whole ecosystems of actors, but also are eager to be "tour guides" for funders seeking to support this work. It is cause for optimism that as complex as the problems are, as difficult the work is, as far away as the finish line may seem, there is a pathway to get there.”


About The Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group ( is a global nonprofit that collaborates with social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors to make the world more equitable and just. Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting and advising, sourcing and diligence, and leadership team support. We take what we learn from this work and build on it with original research, identifying best practices and innovative ideas to share with the social sector. We work from locations in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, and Singapore.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.