In mission-driven circles, systems-change work—which is focused on the root causes of problems—is sometimes treated like an unattainable dream. Excitement grips hold every few years about a promising pathway, only to simmer down once dreamers awaken to the long, hard road to lasting social change. At a recent conference, one funder confided they were tired of peer gatherings focused on “theoretical sea-change shifts” in the sector. “All these big ideas are just talk with no practical next steps or actions,” the funder said.

And yet systems do change. It made us wonder: what does it truly take to nurture equitable systems change? (We are deliberately talking about systems change that centers equity, because not all such work has to. After all, the patient, coordinated, collective work in the United States to unwind  reproductive rights or voting protections are changing systems, too.)

At Bridgespan, we call the organizations that are often key to unlocking equitable systems change “field catalysts.” (See “What is a field catalyst?”) One such organization we spoke to thinks of itself as a “midwife of social change,” which has a nice ring to it, too. While equitable systems change requires a diverse set of actors playing distinct and complementary roles across a field or ecosystem,1 field catalysts harmonize and drive that multifaceted work, serving as a kind of nerve center for the matrix of activity needed to transform our inequitably designed systems.2 Think of the critical role Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, played in the eradication of polio, or the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ contribution to the dramatic plunge in teen smoking rates. In another example, the goal of marriage equality in the United States was reached thanks, in part, to the Freedom to Marry organization, which orchestrated its campaign for 12 years.

Behind the scenes, philanthropy often plays a role in these achievements. Take IllumiNative, for instance. For six years, as the head of one of the most well-connected and resourced Native-led organizations in the United States, Crystal Echo Hawk felt she was getting invites to all the right rooms in government, the private sector, and philanthropy circles. However, once she arrived, she says she always felt as if she had been “invited by accident.”

Read the full article about funding field catalysts by Lija McHugh Farnham, Emma Nothmann, Kevin Crouch, and Cora Daniels at The Bridgespan Group.