Taking the First Steps to Become a Catalytic Leader - Exponent Philanthropy
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Taking the First Steps to Become a Catalytic Leader

Photo by Nic Low on Unsplash

Funders with few or no staff can advance change on urgent issues. With a few dollars and a wealth of local knowledge and relationships, Exponent Philanthropy members have facilitated reform of a state’s juvenile justice system, increased access to nursing care for new and expectant mothers, and created statewide coalitions to focus dollars and attention on the needs of young children.

Catalytic Leaders

Catalytic leaders connect people and organizations to build networks that enable greater participation in decision making. Recently, Exponent Philanthropy invited six catalytic leaders to train their peers. The leaders say that this work begins when the 5 to 10 people who lead a small foundation agree on a very specific vision for change. It isn’t necessary to commit 100% of the foundation’s resources. However, the board and staff need to dedicate a significant portion of time and money to a specific, targeted outcome—one that is much more focused than most traditional foundation missions.

Sound easy?

Well, focusing deeply is challenging for many foundations. And catalytic leaders say that this is when coming to an agreement happens.

Foundation board and staff are highly engaged with grantees and their community, and learn about a specific need, gap or leverage point where foundation dollars, relationships, and voice can make a big difference.

Focusing Deeply

To learn about issues that are important and ignored or to identify creative solutions, immersion in the community is essential. Doug Bauer, executive director of The Clark Foundation in New York City, and Jenna Wachtmann, vice president of Ball Brothers Foundation in Indiana, offer these ideas:

  • Invite grantee leaders to have informal conversations with your board—Break bread together. Try combining a board site visit with a meal so that board members and grantees can interact. This can also happen via a videoconferencing platform.
  • Convene a cohort of grantee partners—Assemble those who can lead or drive the conversation on priority issues in the community. Engage those closest to the issues. Provide the cohort with multiyear support for these gatherings.
  • Commission a survey of community needs and priorities and survey your grantees—Invite your partners to think beyond the status quo. Ask questions like: “What could you accomplish if you had X resources?”

Moving Beyond Traditional Circles

As you engage and listen, intentionally seek out people beyond your usual, traditional circles. Bonnie Gonzalez, CEO of Knapp Community Care Foundation in Texas, shares these tips:

  • Create trust and credibility with informal community leaders by getting out and visiting with those not spoken to. Look to the periphery.
  • Actively listen to those around you. Make eye contact and engage in listening to difficult discussions.
  • Visit and participate in meetings that are not the ones most people would attend.
  • Ask the hard questions and ask for input—even when you know you will not like the answers!

Make outreach and engagement an ongoing practice. It takes time to develop an understanding of a system; where it breaks down; or what new, promising solutions might be emerging. Also, if you engage grantees and community members over time and demonstrate an authentic desire to listen and learn, people are more likely to be honest with you and share needs, gaps, and creative solutions that will never appear in formal grant applications.

“Earning trust is essential to funders being able to learn.” —Phil Li, President, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation

Many in philanthropy recommend starting by looking inward at one’s values and passions. Catalytic leaders flip this traditional wisdom: They first look outward. Often, we don’t know what we care about until we put ourselves in real relation to those who are close to the issues.

And, yes, as you engage with your community, reflect on your values and passions. The fire that drives catalytic leadership ignites when an urgent need in the community connects with the passions and aspirations of foundation donors, board, and staff.

“When this alignment between external and internal happens, tremendous energy is unleashed to tackle difficult issues.” —John Richardson, Founding Executive Director, Blackstone Ranch Institute

Achieving Unity of Purpose

What if your board members can’t agree on and commit to one issue? This is a challenge facing many foundations in which individual board members or different generations of a family have diverging interests.

Catalytic leaders recommend the foundation board chair and executive director work together to develop a regular, ongoing process for board members to develop familiarity with each other over time. Regular conversations and relationships build mutual trust, which empowers leaders to work together and achieve a common purpose. Organize board meetings and videoconferencing dedicated to reflecting on themes emerging from your listening, your grantee convenings, and the research you’re commissioning.

Mary Anthony, executive director of 1772 Foundation in Rhode Island, says that she and her board engage in learning and listening as a team. They build a shared knowledge among their board and staff by:

  • Meeting grantees as a group
  • Attending meetings and conferences in their field collectively
  • Going to site visits together (these can take place virtually too).

Anthony adds that the experience of learning together builds confidence and deepens trust among the board and staff.

Your board chair and executive director might reconsider the very expectations of board service at your foundation. To do catalytic work, you need a group of people that is willing to spend a significant amount of time together listening to and understanding the landscape.

When the group sees a deep need, an urgent problem, or a creative solution, it will more likely galvanize the entire board. As a result, the foundation will be able to move ahead and consider what the moment requires, whether it’s convening, mobilizing a coalition, doing advocacy, or taking other catalytic actions.

“When board and staff believe in the work, in the need for change, you feel it in your gut! Then and only then will you, together with your board and the engaged community, become a beacon for change.” —Bonnie Gozalez, CEO, Knapp Community Care Foundation

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Thanks to the faculty of Exponent Philanthropy’s August 2020 Learning Lab, Laying the Groundwork for Catalytic Philanthropy:

Mary Anthony, Executive Director, 1772 Foundation, Rhode Island; Doug Bauer, Executive Director, Clark Foundation, New York; Bonnie Gonzalez, CEO, Knapp Community Care Foundation, Texas; Phil Li,

Andy Carroll advises staff, trustees, and donors of leanly staffed foundations in leadership, advocacy, and catalytic philanthropy. He works to empower more small foundations to leverage their unique position and assets to catalyze change on important issues. Andy has an MBA from the University of Michigan Business School and 30 years of experience in management, training, and program development for nonprofit organizations. Follow him on Twitter @andycarrollexpo, and check out his Catalytic Philanthropy Podcast. 


  1. Frances Sykes

    Good stuff!!

    • Andrew Carroll

      Fran, your foundation is achieving great impact in influencing the way organizations in multiple sectors serve working families. Thank you for being part of our community.

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