With the novel coronavirus pandemic highlighting the importance of effective coordination and collaboration for funders looking to address the world's most challenging problems, a new report from the Bridgespan Group offers recommendations for field building in the social change sector.
Based on a literature review, analyses of thirty-five fields, and interviews with more than three dozen field leaders, the report, Field Building for Population-Level Change: How Funders and Practitioners Can Increase the Odds of Success (executive summary or 41 pages, PDF), examines patterns in the way fields progress and evolve in their efforts to create impact at scale, field-building activities that can accelerate that trajectory, and how field-building efforts can center equity in service of population-level change. Conducted over six months, the study identified five factors — knowledge base, actors, field-level agenda, infrastructure, and resources — that, individually and collectively, interact with three phases to enable impact at scale. According to the report, the three phases are "emerging," in which impact is scattered and sporadic; "forming," in which infrastructure, collaboration, and coordination accelerate progress; and "evolving and sustaining."
The report notes that many field-building efforts are hampered by the exclusive leadership of a few funders, as opposed to efforts that prioritize inclusive leadership, with seats at the table for those closest to the work. It then offers four equity-focused principles for funders engaged in field-building work: adopt a holistic approach that considers all actors; balance being proactive and reactive by pursuing efforts that create conditions for change as well as those that capitalize on timely opportunities; problem-solve through inclusive decision making, empowering those closest to the problem to co-lead and co-create solutions for lasting change; and commit to the long-term and fund the work over an extended period (often at least a decade).
"Despite growing agreement among practitioners that achieving population-level change often requires meaningful and intentional collaboration and coordination across a field's actors, few efforts of this sort are achieving impact at scale," said Lija Farnham, a co-author of the report. "In our work, we have heard from funders and practitioners alike that scaling individual organizations is insufficient to solve complex, evolving social problems. In large measure, a lack of shared understanding about what it takes to advance fields thwarts such efforts."
(Photo credit: Bridgespan Group)