Field Building – What Is It? And Why Should You Care?

Hands In

By Kathy Swayze

October 20, 2020

I first heard the term ‘field building’ when reading Stanford Social Innovation Review and appreciate their efforts to study and report on this and many topics of importance to the nonprofit community.

Authors Taz Hussein, Matt Plummer, and Bill Breen wrote in a 2018 SSIR article, “Funders and nonprofits increasingly recognize that no single organization or strategy, regardless of how large or successful it may be, can solve a complex social challenge at scale.”

 They asked, what does it really take to achieve population-level change on critical social issues such as marriage equality, teen smoking, malaria and more? Why do some movements achieve monumental shifts in culture and social policy, while others do not?

The answer, they say, is that true change comes from catalysts who think of the problem as a whole, not just from the standpoint of a single organization. They think about how their entire field can work together to achieve a big goal. They “identify organizations that are already working on promising solutions … funders, nonprofits, NGOs, governmental institutions, for-profits, community networks, and other stakeholders … and begin to plot a long-range map for advancing a common goal.”

By thinking on the terms of a “field” rather than a single organization or even a coalition, they can identify key capabilities that are needed to succeed – and then go find partners who can fill in that piece of the puzzle. Needed skills could include working with media, building bridges to diverse communities, gathering research data, securing funding and more.

Recognizing that no single organization is going to be excellent in all these areas – and shouldn’t try to be – makes sense. But how are we in the nonprofit sector opening ourselves to this idea? And how about funders? They often ask for “collaboration,” but many don’t provide the funding to create capacity for a comprehensive field building approach to change.

One clear barrier is that the best catalysts don’t claim the spotlight … and the it is often the spotlight that attracts investment. We need more forward-thinking funders who will actively seek out the catalysts in a field and not only promote broad-based collaboration, but invest in it.

When funders and organizational leaders truly rally around this concept of field building, we will make meaningful progress on seemingly intractable problems, regardless of who gets the credit.  The goal is to sustain and grow social impact, not necessarily individual organizations.

For more on this, check out this article from SSIR and consider subscribing at

By Kathy Swayze, CFRE

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