From time to time, mission-driven leaders find themselves working behind the scenes on the big picture. Maybe they convene leaders from across social, public, and private sectors or research root causes that allow underlying challenges to persist. Perhaps they work to change narratives through mass media or examine in some other way how the various players of an ecosystem can coordinate. In all such cases, the leaders’ frames of reference are less about helping individuals in need in the moment—and more about changing inequitable systems forever.

If this sounds familiar, then this article is for you.

We call the doers of this multifaceted work “field catalysts,”1 and we have been studying and learning from these systems-change leaders for more than five years now (see “What is a field catalyst?”). In our latest research, we surveyed about 100 of these social-change makers in a variety of fields, including health equity, gender-based violence, climate change, and education, and interviewed more than 40 leaders, all to better understand what it takes for field catalysts to launch and thrive. Our accompanying article, “Equitable Systems Change: Funding Field Catalysts from Origins to Revolutionizing the World,” goes deep into data and trends from the survey and interviews to offer guidance for funders. Here, we share lessons from field catalysts for fellow leaders.

What Is a Field Catalyst?

Population-level impact requires massive change in the entrenched systems that perpetuate inequitable outcomes. As part of these efforts, our research indicates there is an often unseen—at least by funders—yet highly effective type of intermediary or collaborative that we call a “field catalyst.” Each works to mobilize and galvanize myriad actors across a social-change movement, or field, to achieve a shared goal for equitable systems change. Many of society’s major social-change successes have benefited from their critical work, and aspirations for population-level change will remain elusive until we unlock significant capital to support them.

So You Want to Be a Field Catalyst?

Field catalysts play a distinct, critical, and an often unseen (especially by funders) set of roles in the broader ecosystem in service of equitable systems change. (We deliberately researched systems change that centers equity, because not all such work has to. For instance, the patient, coordinated, collective work in the United States to unwind reproductive rights or voting protections are changing systems, too.) Those roles include diagnosing and assessing the core problem and full landscape of actors devoted to it, advocating or shining a spotlight on an issue, and connecting and organizing actors around a shared goal, as well as filling any critical gaps in collective effort toward that goal.2

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