Bridgespan Research Uncovers “Invisible Hand” Guiding Population-Level Change: The Field Catalyst

Analysis examines role of emergent class of intermediary that galvanizes efforts of organizations and movements to create a new normal

BOSTON, Oct. 26, 2017 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- In much the same way that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” works in the private sector, there are unseen agents that are helping to accelerate social change, according to new research by The Bridgespan Group. 

How Field Catalysts Galvanize Social Change,” published in Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2018 issue), shares research findings on 15 fields that aimed to achieve population-level social change. The study revealed that in eight of those fields, an emergent type of intermediary, which Bridgespan terms a field catalyst, both connected and strengthened the work of actors across a given field to achieve a specific, critical milestone. One such catalyst, Roll Back Malaria, served as a hub for many other players striving to eradicate malaria and saw worldwide deaths from the disease fall 75 percent.

Taz Hussein, co-author of the article and a partner at The Bridgespan Group said, “Field catalysts were not the only agents of change in those fields that saw dramatic, population-level gains, but they were the common denominator. The consistency of their presence suggests they play an outsized role in helping to surmount some of our biggest social challenges.”

Other fields where catalysts helped spark precipitous breakthroughs include:

Marriage equality | In 2002, not a single state issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In 2010, a catalyst called Freedom to Marry expanded its scope to include the entire field. Five years later, 37 states had issued licenses, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states.

Reducing teen smoking rates | In the 1990s, smoking rates among adolescents climbed to nearly 37 percent. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids came to life in 1995, with the explicit goal of driving down youth smoking rates. Two years later, US rates began a year-over-year decline to 9.2 percent by 2014. 

Reducing teen pregnancies | In 1991, teen childbearing in the United States had climbed to more than 60 births per 1,000 teenagers. With its founding in 1996, a catalyst called The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy mobilized public messaging and became a “trusted source” for objective information. By 2015, the rate had dropped to an all-time low of 22 births per 1,000.

According to Bridgespan editorial board member and co-author Bill Breen, “Practitioners tell us that scaling a successful innovation, by itself, is not enough to benefit great swaths of the population. What’s needed are field catalysts, which work behind the scenes to amplify the efforts of many different actors.” 

The research points to four defining characteristics of field catalysts:

  • They focus on achieving population-level change, not simply scaling up an organization or intervention
  • They influence the direct actions of others, rather than acting directly themselves
  • They focus on getting things done, not on building consensus
  • They are designed and managed to win, not to last

Co-author Matt Plummer, a former Bridgespan manager, says that field catalysts think differently than most other social change organizations in three ways. “First, they think about how their field can achieve population-level change; second, they think about a road map for change and plot out how stakeholders can converge around a game-changing strategy; and, third, they think about process—what it will take to marshal and support stakeholder’s efforts to activate the roadmap.”

Added Hussein, “Successful field catalysts do certain things very well, including gaining the trust of many stakeholders, some of whom have competing agendas.” The article highlights three other areas of strength:

  • Help the field meet evolving needs by filling  a variety of “capability gaps”
  • Mobilize multiple funders and steer, rather than control, funding streams
  • Consult many players but make decisions within a small group

The catalysts identified in the article range widely in size, with annual budgets from $4 million to $73 million. But according to Hussein, all punch far above their weight. “While they neither deserve, nor would claim, all the credit for success, the appearance of a field catalyst repeatedly correlated with the tipping point for change,” he says. “To make real progress against this century’s emerging challenges, we will need the field catalyst’s invisible hand.”




About The Bridgespan Group, 
The Bridgespan Group is a global organization that collaborates with mission-driven leaders, organizations, and philanthropists to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. We bring a rigorous approach, shared passion, and deep social sector experience. Our services include consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists, leadership development support, and developing and sharing insights.


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