A Call for Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

A Call for Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy

Photo by Lara Jameson

Philanthropy is ever changing. Pressing issues and seismic political, economic, and technological shifts move us to regularly revisit how we work. Urgency, passion, curiosity, and the desire to engage are driving some lean funders (those with few or no staff) to center their giving around authentic relationships with grantees and members of their community. This type of Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy (CLIP) sets them apart. Notably:

    • Where foundations get information from proposals and site visits, these funders educate and inform themselves before making grants.
    • Where foundations distance themselves from grantees and members of the community through elaborate application processes, these funders invite conversations, nurture relationships, and seek new ideas and feedback from these stakeholders.
    • Where foundations emphasize grants and dollars, these funders leverage powerful assets, including knowledge, connections, reputation, access, influence, and the freedom to take on difficult or controversial issues to give beyond dollars.
    • Where foundations operate on a short-term, year-by-year cycle, these funders commit themselves to an issue for years or even decades.

    Lean funders are perfectly positioned to embrace CLIP because they have deep ties to their communities, operate with less bureaucracy, can respond to emerging opportunities quickly, and are able to focus in a laserlike way.

    Elements of Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy

    This transformational leadership style embraces these practices and skills:

    • Finding your focus, whether it’s on one or two issues or a community
    • Developing a common understanding of what you want to accomplish
    • Getting out of the office, scanning the landscape, and engaging the community
    • Listening deeply to, learning from, and building strong relationships with grantees, members of the community, and diverse experts
    • Encouraging and leading convenings and collaborations
    • Understanding the ecosystem of your chosen issue or community
    • Identifying gaps, needs, and leverage points for initiating change
    • Committing to a course of action for multiple years

    As you immerse yourself in these elements, you’ll see the potential of having an impact at a larger systems level. Actions that appeared risky—convening, collaboration, and advocacy—will become logical, natural steps in your quest for impact. Indeed, as your work unfolds, you’ll move from grantmaker to an active catalytic leader for change.

    This Transformative Journey Will Position You to Carry Out Powerful Work in Several Specific Areas:

    Strengthening Organizations and Communities

    In this area, you can:

    • Provide the flexible, long-term support nonprofits need.
    • Build the capacity and leadership of nonprofits and networks.
    • Support community organizing.
    Advancing Equity and Inclusion

    In this area, you can:

    • Support small, dynamic grassroots organizations.
    • Nurture and support leaders of color.
    • Engage grantees and members of the community in decisions.
    Convening and Connecting

    In this area, you can:

    • Gather grantees, nonprofits, government agencies, business leaders, educators, and others to generate solutions together.
    • Mobilize diverse partners around an issue to develop action plans, coordinate efforts, and build collective will.
    • Leverage your relationships to serve as a community broker and matchmaker.
    Nurturing Creativity and Innovation

    In this area, you can:

    • See patterns and connections among disparate events, groups, and issues to identify new solutions and ideas.
    • Provide seed funding for promising ideas and cutting-edge entrepreneurs.
    • Develop talent, leadership, and human potential.
    Influencing Policy and Building Civic Participation

    In this area, you can:

    • Speak out to focus attention on urgent issues.
    • Fund and disseminate research for policy change.
    • Promote civic education, participation, and voter engagement.
    • Elevate the voices of those who are voiceless in the policy arena.
    • Catalyze reforming antiquated, ineffective systems.

    As a lean funder, when you embrace your unique ability to learn, nurture relationships, and bring people together, you become a powerful change maker. You can start down your path to CLIP today with the humblest of acts: listening. Wherever you are in your journey, the Exponent Philanthropy community is here to help you each step of the way.

    We Invite Foundations and Donors to Join the Movement and Start Their CLIP Journey »

    Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy: How to Get Started
    Anyone—trustees, staff, donors, or the next generation—can learn and embrace CLIP with a few key practices and skill sets. This resource will teach you how. Download the publication now »

    What we mean when we talk about Catalytic Leadership in Philanthropy
    What is CLIP?
    How do lean funders practice it?
    Why is having a giving focus important?
    Download Essentials now »

    Exponent Philanthropy’s 2023 Annual Conference
    October 17 – October 19, 2023 | Baltimore, MD
    The only conference designed specifically for and by lean funders—those who give with few or no staff. Join your peers in knowledge sharing, skills building, and networking. Sessions will center on foundation management fundamentals; catalytic leadership; equity-centered philanthropy; and more. Register today >>

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    About the Author

    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 >>


    1. Frances P. Sykes

      This is excellent. I’m forwarding it to all trustees.
      Thanks. Fran

      • Andy Carroll

        Thank you for reading, Fran. We have learned much about Catalytic Philanthropy from you.

    2. Frances P. Sykes

      Excellent article!
      I’m forwarding it to all trustees.
      Thank you.

    3. John Amoroso

      Way to go Andy! May we all follow these sage words.

      • Andy Carroll

        Thank you for reading, John. Your foundation’s focus, bold goals, collaboration, and persistence model catalytic philanthropy.

    4. Rob DiLeonardi

      Well said, Andy. So many good points here, but I’ll pick one to highlight. Our foundation has had particularly good success “identify(ing) gaps, needs, and leverage points for change.”

      We recently applied this perspective to COVID-19 emergency finding, by looking and listening for an opportunity for a small grant to have a big impact. Ultimately we gave a modest grant to launch an emergency response fund at our state’s free clinics association. This launch funding, coupled with a little advocacy on our part, soon leveraged additional grants from other foundations. The, result was enough money to allow several free clinics–the frontlines providers for many of those most impacted by COVID, but often run on shoestring budgets–to keep their doors open and/or buy badly needed PPE, telehealth equipment, etc.

      So thanks for the excellent blog post, lots of great and practical advice concisely presented. Like another commenter I, too, will be sharing this one.

    5. Andy Carroll

      Rob, thank you for reading, and for sharing this terrific work launching the emergency fund for free clinics, and doing advocacy so it could grow!

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