Success in solving complex social problems frequently hinges on the work of organizations that harmonize the action of myriad actors—often referred to as field catalysts, systems orchestrators, or coalitions. Yet philanthropy too often overlooks them, as they defy traditional due diligence criteria. Breaking through will require philanthropy to reboot how it engages with these pivotal entities as critical catalysts and leaders of systems change.

The COVID-19 crisis has confirmed once again the inequitable design of many of society’s systems. That could be the end of the story, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, there is an opportunity for funders to respond in ways that reimagine these systems and intentionally lay the groundwork for more equitable ones.

Achieving large-scale, enduring social change of this sort frequently hinges on the work of organizations that serve as “nerve centers” and harmonize the coordinated action of myriad actors. While there may be no agreement on exactly what to call these key entities (e.g., field catalysts, anchor organizations, systems orchestrators, backbones), many of society’s major social-change efforts have benefited from their work.

We studied more than 20 entities that act as the nerve centers of various social-change ecosystems, conducted more than 30 interviews, and drew from existing literature to distill a set of due-diligence criteria and a process funders can use to assess and invest in these organizations.

The approach centers on four critical assets, or some might say "superpowers," which make these entities particularly well suited to the complex work of systems change.

The process for assessing these superpowers 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 represents a significant change for some funders. It requires a shift from funder-driven diagnoses to a vision and shared understanding shaped and affirmed by key actors in the ecosystem. It also necessitates a shift from a transactional relationship between funder and actors devoted to the problem to one of intentional partnership.

As a companion to our article, our guide offers a set of questions funders can ask these types of organizations and other stakeholders to understand the assets they bring.

Read the full article about supporting systems change leaders at Bridgespan Group.