Check out CEP’s new searchable database of resources for individuals and grantmakers.

Contact Us



Field Catalysts: The Versatile, Essential Tool Missing from Philanthropy’s Systems Change Toolbox

Date: August 31, 2023

Lija Farnham

Partner, The Bridgespan Group

Lisa Quay

Former Executive Director, Student Experience Research Network (SERN)

Never Miss A Post

Share this Post:

Philanthropists aspire to major progress on big, systemic issues like education or public health and most fund individual interventions in the hope that one will break through and scale. But the hard truth is that achieving population-level impact requires changing the underlying systems and structures that have been holding inequities in place. The work is hard, slow, and complicated and it requires working collectively across seemingly insurmountable silos. Fortunately, there is a tool in the toolbox that is built for just such a challenge. It’s called a field catalyst. But research by The Bridgespan Group shows that few funders even know what they are or how to use them.

You probably have never heard of Student Experience Research Network (SERN), a field catalyst that recently sunset after eight years. But if you worked in education, you likely would have heard of the researchers and organizations SERN engaged, including Claude Steele, Carol Dweck, Teach For America, Aspen Institute, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among many others.

SERN brought together people spanning entrenched silos in education research, practice, policy, and philanthropy on the topic of students’ experiences of school, focused on a broad question: How can we use research to help transform an inequitably designed education system in the U.S. into one that supports every student’s learning and well-being by respecting them as a valued person and thinker? In other words, how can school affirm students’ humanity?

Tackling such a big issue requires transforming the inequitable structures in the U.S. education system that shape what is taught and how, who is teaching, what is assessed, and how resources are distributed. It involves research and organizations working on these various aspects of education, in diverse geographies, and at different altitudes within the system. Thus, it requires coordination, connection, and collaboration across them. It needs a nerve center. Otherwise known as a field catalyst.

You can read a detailed assessment of SERN’s impact as one of these “nerve centers” here, but a few key areas were essential to its impact:

  1. SERN carefully created opportunities to learn together with its partners, which increased relationship-building across silos in research, practice, policy, and philanthropy. This led to a larger base of multi-disciplinary knowledge about student experiences, as well as more cross-sector knowledge-sharing and collaboration.
  2. It also shifted whose expertise was centered and invested in. Bias and inequitable practices that advantage white and male scholars have limited our scientific understanding of human development and social phenomena like student experience. SERN had a multi-pronged approach to cultivate a more diverse community of scholars and body of scholarship, and elevate the leadership and research of those from marginalized groups.
  3. As a result of these efforts and more, SERN’s work helped create a new narrative among influential leaders in education. By the time of its sunset, these leaders increasingly understood that student experience matters to academic outcomes and the way to improve student experience is by changing inequitable structures in education. Organizations with wide reach in education had begun making shifts in their work and the research they drew on to inform such efforts.

As part of its sunset, SERN captured detailed lessons on how it advanced these shifts as a field catalyst, but a key takeaway was how philanthropy was central to its impact.

Bridgespan’s recent study revealed that field catalysts are systematically under-funded. The median annual budget is $5M; the median funding gap to fulfill their mission is $2.5M annually. This gap exacerbates other challenges field catalysts face: talent constraints given the unusual nature of their work; the ability to measure impact differently; and balancing competing demands. SERN grappled with all of these challenges, but it benefited from receiving multiple, multi-year core support grants. Its funders also provided non-financial resources including elevating SERN’s work with other partners, access to connections, streamlined administrative burdens, and thought partnership. And funders provided important flexibility in how SERN measured its impact. Its founding funder, the Raikes Foundation, played a key role in setting the tone for this type of philanthropic partnership with SERN, and it was embraced by all its core funders.

So, what should funders know about supporting field catalysts?

First, funders at the cutting edge of this work are shifting their assumptions about what it takes to achieve population-level change. Massive change requires understanding and addressing root causes and underlying structural issues. It also necessitates investments in ecosystems. Organizations engaging people and policies on the front lines are essential. So, too, are the entities that help coordinate, align, and provide information and connections that can enhance those groups’ work. Funders increasingly appreciate capacity building in individual organizations. Field catalysts like SERN show the importance of capacity building in fields — and that there are organizations ready to do that work.

Second, leading funders think differently about measurement and impact. SERN’s strategic priorities, and the indicators it developed to track progress, were not geared toward traditional impact metrics in philanthropy, like number of people served. SERN sought to build organizations’ capacity to make research-informed decisions by synthesizing disparate research insights, brokering connections and information sharing, and encouraging cross-sector and cross-disciplinary collaboration to generate practical research knowledge. SERN’s funders understood and accepted its reporting on metrics aligned with this field-building work.

Third, leading funders understand that a relatively small investment in a field catalyst goes a long way. This kind of work doesn’t require a lot of funding relative to the scale of impact it unlocks, but it does require giving long-term and without programmatic strings attached — because a field catalyst’s strategy, by definition, must evolve with the field.inline That doesn’t mean funders need to cut a check and walk away. Being a SERN funder meant being part of a learning journey together with SERN, and their networks and knowledge expanded.

For funders who have never considered field catalysts an important part of your strategy: You may already benefit from field catalysts without knowing it, because field catalysts build capacity for others, including funders. And a growing number of social change leaders are realizing that their organizations — and their fields — need entities like SERN and the many other field catalysts serving in fields ranging from public health to climate change to achieve the population-level change they aspire to.

There are multiple historical and current examples of field catalysts playing vital roles in advancing change. These organizations are taking on some of the toughest social change issues globally and enhancing the ability of their fields to achieve progress. Some entities you may already be funding to do other work are conducting field catalyst activities on the side and would benefit from explicit investments in that work. The next time you’re talking with one of your partners, ask them who is working behind the scenes, sharing information, and building connective tissue in a field, officially, or unofficially, and you will find your way to a field catalyst.

We encourage funders grappling with big, challenging issues to think about adding a new tool to your toolbox — a field catalyst. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it doesn’t cost too much, but it performs multiple essential jobs in the service of achieving population-level impact.

Lija Farnham is a partner at The Bridgespan Group. She co-leads Bridgespan’s work on systems change through field building and supporting field catalysts. Find her on LinkedIn. Lisa Quay served most recently as the executive director of Student Experience Research Network (SERN). Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

From the Blog