How Field Catalysts Galvanize Social Change

October 13, 2017
By Taz Hussein, Matt Plummer, and Bill Breen
When looking across the major social-change efforts of our time, the parabola of success sometimes arcs suddenly and steeply. Take, for example, the precipitous breakthrough in the global effort to eliminate malaria. Beginning in 1980, malaria’s worldwide death toll rose at a remorseless 3 percent annual rate. In 2004 alone, the pandemic claimed more than 1.8 million lives. Then, starting in 2005 and continuing over the next 10 years, worldwide deaths from malaria dropped by an astonishing 75 percent—one of the most remarkable inflection points in the history of global health.
Many events helped reverse malaria deaths, including the widespread distribution of insecticidal nets. Behind the scenes, though, the intermediary Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership played a critical role in orchestrating the efforts of many actors. RBM, founded in 1998, has never treated a patient; nor has it delivered a single bed net or can of insecticide. Rather, RBM has worked across the field of malaria eradication by helping to build public awareness, aggregate and share technical information with a system of global stakeholders, and mobilize funding.
Since 2000, such collaboration has saved more than six million lives. This is not to suggest that RBM is primarily responsible for these dramatic results. But the evidence indicates that by building a marketplace for ideas and a framework for action, RBM helped position the field for breakthrough success.
“RBM has been a clearinghouse, a cheerleader, and a technical adviser for the community working on malaria elimination,” says David Bowen, former deputy director for global health policy and advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “RBM’s partnership has been very, very helpful to smaller groups and funders—not in providing funding but in linking resources together.”
Funders and nonprofits increasingly recognize that no single organization or strategy, regardless of how large or successful it may be, can solve a complex social challenge at scale. Instead, organizations need to work collaboratively to tackle pressing social problems. Enter a type of intermediary built to serve as a hub for spokes of advocacy and action, and roll all stakeholders toward a defined goal—an intermediary like RBM. These “field catalysts,” which fit into an emergent typology of field-building intermediaries, help stakeholders summon sufficient throw-weight to propel a field up and over the tipping point to sweeping change.
The Role of Field Builders
A decade ago, The James Irvine Foundation asked The Bridgespan Group to investigate what it takes to galvanize the systems-change efforts of disparate stakeholders working on the same problem and focused on attaining measurable, population-level change in a given field.
Building on more than 60 interviews with leaders in the field of education, Bridgespan and the Irvine Foundation produced a report in 2009, “The Strong Field Framework,”1 that spotlighted five components that make for a truly robust field: a shared identity that’s anchored on the field; standards of codified practices; a knowledge base built on credible research; leadership and grassroots support that advances the field; and sufficient funding and supportive policies.
Seven years after we published the report, we found funders still grappling with what it takes to build a strong field. And nonprofits still wondered whether they should venture beyond delivering a direct service and spin out an intermediary that works through other actors to achieve far-reaching social goals.2 Their questions pushed us to better understand what it takes to achieve population-level change, and to look at the roles that field-building intermediaries might play in the process.
We already knew that such field-building intermediaries came in at least three flavors: (See “Emerging Taxonomy of Field-Building Intermediaries” below.)
  • Capability specialists,” which provide the field with one type of supporting expertise. For example, our own organization, The Bridgespan Group, was founded as a capability builder, with a goal of strengthening management and leadership across the social sector.
  • Place-based backbones,” the mainstays of collective impact, which connect regional stakeholders and collaborate with them to move the needle. One example, Strive Partnership, was founded to knit together business, government, nonprofits, and funders in Cincinnati to improve education outcomes for kids from cradle to college (described in a seminal Stanford Social Innovation Review article in 2011).3
  • Evidence-action labs,” which take on a range of functions to help stakeholders scale up evidence-based solutions. Two examples are Ariadne Labs, which aims to create scalable solutions for serious illness care, and Character Lab, which works to advance the science and practice of character development in children.
Field Catalysts
In late 2016, we surveyed 15 fields that aimed to achieve population-level change. We uncovered a fourth type of intermediary: the field catalyst, which sought to help multiple actors achieve a shared, sweeping goal.4 It is a cousin to the other types of intermediaries, and it’s likely been around unnamed for decades. (Consider the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s role in achieving civil rights victories, for example.)
To be sure, not all change requires a field catalyst. At times, a single entity takes off and tips an entire field. Sesame Street, for example, took the field of early childhood education to global scale and dramatically influenced the growth of evidence-based, educational TV programming for preschoolers. (Think Blue’s Clues or Barney & Friends.)5 But the Sesame Streets of the world, in our experience and research, are rare.
Field catalysts, on the other hand, are not uncommon. They share four characteristics:
  • Focus on achieving population-level change, not simply on scaling up an organization or intervention.
  • Influence the direct actions of others, rather than acting directly themselves.
  • Concentrate on getting things done, not on building consensus.
  • Are built to win, not to last.

We also found that field catalysts often prefer that their role go undetected. They function much the way that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works in the private sector, where the indirect actions of many players ultimately benefit society. Catalysts usually stay out of the public eye, working in subtle ways to augment the efforts of other actors as they push toward an expansive goal. (If they were to seek the spotlight, stakeholders might view them as competitors and they would lose their influence.) Sometimes, their unseen efforts go unrealized.
Out of the 15 fields that we examined, four are still working to achieve population-level change and three fields are emerging. However, we identified eight fields that did produce momentous change. In each case, field catalysts were a common denominator. That’s not to say they are the only factor of influence. But the consistency of their presence is striking. Indeed, in each of the eight fields that did exhibit significant progress, a catalyst emerged near a sharp inflection point.
There were three fields in particular where catalysts played a critical role. (See “Galvanizing Population-Level Change” below.) The first was achieving marriage equality. In 2002, not a single state issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In 2010, a catalyst called Freedom to Marry expanded its scope to include the entire field. That same year, the number of states banning same-sex marriage peaked at 41. Over the next five years, the marriage-equality movement gathered momentum. Thirty-seven states had issued licenses by 2015, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states.
The second field was cutting teen smoking. In the 1990s, high school-age smoking rates climbed to nearly 37 percent. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids came to life in 1995, with the explicit goal of driving down youth smoking rates. Two years later, US rates began a year-over-year decline to 9.2 percent by 2014.
The third field where catalysts played a critical role was reducing teen pregnancies. In the late 1980s, teen childbearing in the United States began to rise from a rate of 50 births per 1,000 teenagers to more than 60 births per 1,000 in 1991. With its founding in 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy mobilized public messaging efforts by partnering with entertainment media and faith communities. Following a slight uptick from 2005 to 2007, the birth rate dropped to 20 births per 1,000 in 2016.
These three catalysts, and five of the other highly effective ones we identified, range widely in size—with annual budgets of between $4 million and $73 million6—but all punch far above their weight. To be sure, neither do they deserve all the credit for their fields’ success, nor would they claim it. As the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ founder, Bill Novelli, puts it, others “have been laboring in these vineyards for many years.”
And yet, again and again in our study, field catalysts correlated with the tipping point for change. These catalytic intermediaries may be playing an outsized role in systems-change efforts. Bridgespan recently interviewed 25 social sector leaders to ascertain what they believed were the most influential ideas over the past five years. “Systems approaches to solve large, complex problems” ranked among the top handful. As more and more actors engage in systems change and name it as their goal, perhaps it’s not surprising that catalytic intermediaries begin to surface.
Regardless of how a field catalyst comes to life, it will likely encounter some unique tests, including: earning the trust of funders and direct-service providers, developing a deep understanding of how change happens, and staying nimble enough to fulfill the field’s evolving needs. If a catalyst is to surmount obstacles both known and unknown, it will have to think through a set of deliberate choices and build discrete skills.
What Field Catalysts Think About
Field catalysts are very intentional in what they choose to think about, and they think differently from most other social-change organizations in three important ways.
First, they think about how their field—fractured and fragmented though it may be—can achieve population-level change. Catalysts don’t concern themselves with building an organization or scaling an intervention. As the business management author Jim Collins put it in another context, they focus on achieving a “big hairy audacious goal,”7 such as eradicating polio or ending chronic homelessness. Rather than jump to “the answer,” field catalysts first ask, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? And have the stakeholders we want to work with clearly defined it?”
In a TEDx talk on systems change, philanthropist and advisor Jeffrey Walker mused, “Not knowing everything is a skill.”8 Approaching a complex, system-sized challenge can require a “beginner’s mind … where you rebuild what you know and what stakeholders know into a common vision.” Catalysts define the vision, or mission, in a way that’s bold enough for stakeholders to rally around, yet specific enough to make a measurable difference.
When Dr. Jim Krieger, formerly chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Section of Seattle’s Department of Public Health, first thought about taking on a catalytic role in preventing obesity, he knew it was a problem that mattered: The percentage of obese children in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Yet a mission to “reduce obesity” would have been too vague. It took lots of conversations with many stakeholders in the public health arena and a review of the evidence on what worked for Krieger to focus on nutrition and address the upstream food environment that shapes people’s food choices. What proved a rallying cause: reduce consumption of the excessive amounts of added sugar marketed to Americans. Krieger’s 2016 response, the creation of Healthy Food America, is now a linchpin in the movement to slash the 76 pounds of added sugar that Americans consume every year.
Second, field catalysts think about a road map for change. Even as they define a mission, catalysts identify organizations that are already working on promising solutions. Catalysts delineate the field’s topography, tracing the links between funders, nonprofits, NGOs, governmental institutions, for-profits, community networks, and other stakeholders that matter. In this way, the catalyst begins to plot a long-range map for advancing a common goal.
In 2003, when Freedom to Marry (FTM) joined a wide-ranging campaign to achieve marriage equality, it was a “behind-the-scenes cajoler and convener … an adviser to funders”9—and not much more. But two years later, with additional states banning same-sex marriage, FTM took on a catalytic role. It led the development of a strategic road map for achieving a transformative, measurable goal within 15 to 25 years: nationwide marriage for same-sex couples.
FTM helped convene leaders from 10 LGBT organizations to draft a road map, “Winning Marriage: What We Need to Do.” The strategy centered on an intermediate, achievable goal, dubbed 10/10/10/20: In 15 years, ensure that 10 states guarantee marriage protection; 10 states have “all but” marriage protection such as civil unions; 10 states at least have more limited protections such as domestic-partnership laws; and 20 states have experienced “climate change” in attitudes toward LGBT people. The map laid out tactics for rolling out the plan, as well as guiding principles for reaching all 50 US states.
As conditions change, catalysts and their allies make mid-course corrections. In its first iteration, the Winning Marriage road map wasn’t enough to navigate past a determined opposition in California (that is, the looming Proposition 8 ballot initiative). But it did define a collaborative model for achieving vividly defined goals, which would eventually ladder up to breakthrough change. In fact, of our eight most successful catalysts, the majority created strategy road maps to clarify critical challenges and identify steps for getting to success.
The third thing that field catalysts think about is what it will take to marshal stakeholders’ efforts. Field catalysts make a calculated choice to serve rather than lead. Effective leaders of field catalysts often possess what Jim Collins, in Good to Great, calls “Level 5 leadership,” or the “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”10 It requires deliberately subjugating ego while summoning the grit to keep pushing past inevitable setbacks. As one leader of a field catalyst put it, “Part of the work of engaging the hearts and minds of others comes down to influence whispering and not being viewed as the causal part of change.”
When Community Solutions launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign—a national movement to find permanent homes for 100,000 chronically homeless Americans—the organization’s president, Rosanne Haggerty, made clear that “the campaign was more important than any one organization.” However, fostering “an ethos of humility” was not so easy.