January 14, 2021

New Bridgespan Group Research Examines How Funders Can Spur Systems Change by Supporting “Field Catalyst” Organizations

The study calls for a shift from transactional donor-grantee relationship to intentional partnership.

Boston—January 14, 2021—A new study by The Bridgespan Group looks at ways of achieving large-scale social change by focusing on organizations that serve as “nerve centers” harmonizing the coordination and progress of myriad actors within an ecosystem. Such organizations, according to the research, are routinely underfunded and the critical role they play is overlooked.

According to Bridgespan Partner Lija Farnham, who co-authored the article, “It is a missed opportunity as we see these actors as best positioned to drive immediate responses to crises while simultaneously reimagining and transforming public systems towards a more equitable and just society. The multi-faceted challenges of addressing Covid 19, combating systemic racism, and preserving democracy, underscored by both the relentless virus spread and horrific events at the Capitol last week, elevate the urgency of supporting such entities.”

The Bridgespan team studied more than 20 entities that act as the nerve centers (calling them “field catalysts”) of various social-change ecosystems, conducted more than 30 interviews, and drew from existing literature. From that, they distilled a set of due diligence criteria and a process funders can use to assess and invest in these organizations.

Added coauthor Emma Nothmann, a principal at The Bridgespan Group, “The assessment process hinges on listening deeply to the entity’s leaders as well as including rich input from a cross section of the actors with which it collaborates. This necessitates a shift from a transactional relationship between funders and actors devoted to the problem to one of intentional partnership.”

Bridgespan also created a guide to accompany the study that offers a set of questions funders can ask to understand what assets these (field catalysts) organizations are bringing to the table. The report outlines multiple ways, beyond due diligence, that funders can adapt their grantmaking practices to support the work of these organizations including:
  • Providing flexible, multiyear support
  • Funding in ways that foster collaboration (as opposed to competition) among actors, including resources for convenings
  • For issue areas where no viable nerve centers exist—supporting current and future leaders, especially leaders of color, to do this kind of work
“Building equitable and just public systems is really about imagining another world; and funding field catalysts or anchor organizations or systems orchestrators—whatever we choose to call them—is, in part, how we fight for that,” said Farnham.
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) 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 a presence in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, and San Francisco, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, impact investing strategy and diligence, and developing and sharing practical insights.

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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.