A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

A Call for Creative Catalytic Philanthropy

Philanthropy doesn’t stand still. Pressing issues and seismic political, economic, and technological shifts move us to regularly revisit and renew how we work.

Urgency, passion, inquisitiveness, and a desire to engage is driving a number of 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 creative catalytic philanthropy sets them apart.

  • Where foundations typically get information from proposals and site visits, these funders educate and inform themselves before making grants.
  • Where foundations typically 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 typically emphasize grants and dollars, these funders leverage powerful assets such as knowledge, connections, reputation, access, influence, and the freedom to take on difficult or controversial issues to give beyond dollars.
  • Where funders typically operate on a short-term, year-by-year cycle, these funders commit themselves to an issue for years or even decades.

Inspired by these deeply engaged funders, Exponent Philanthropy is championing creative, catalytic philanthropy as a way to achieve true outsized impact. Lean funders are perfectly positioned to embrace these practices, as they have deep ties to their communities, operate with less bureaucracy, can respond to emerging opportunities quickly, and are able to focus in a laser-like way.

We invite foundations and donors to join this movement, and embrace these practices:

  • Focus on one or two issues or a community.
  • Develop a common understanding of what you want to accomplish
  • Listen deeply and learn from grantees, members of the community and diverse experts
  • Understand the ecosystem of your chosen issue or community
  • Identify gaps, needs, and leverage points for change
  • Commit to a course of action for multiple years
  • Develop relationships with grantees and members of the community to build trust
  • Respect and rely on the experience and wisdom of grantees

As you immerse yourself in these practices, you’ll see the potential to have an impact at a larger systems level. You’ll raise your sights and think big, awakening your imagination and sense of what’s possible. Actions that appeared risky—convening, collaboration, and advocacy—will become logical, natural steps in your quest for impact. As your work unfolds, you’ll move from grant giver to active catalyst for change.

This transformative journey will prepare and position you for powerful work, including:

Strengthening organizations and communities

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

Advancing equity and inclusion

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

Convening and connecting

    • 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

    • 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

    • 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

When lean funders, like you, embrace their unique abilities to learn, nurture relationships, and bring people together, they become powerful change-makers. Your path to bold, creative, catalytic philanthropy can start today with the most humble of acts—listening.

Wherever you are in your journey, Exponent Philanthropy is a community here to help you each step of the way.

Ways to Start on Your Journey to Catalytic Philanthropy

This Learning Lab is for lean funders of all kinds looking to lay the groundwork for letting go of the classic grantmaking paradigm of applications, cycles, and approvals, and dig into solving problems by being responsive to those closest to the issues.

Recordings are available per module, or as one complete series.

  • Module 1: Position Yourself for Catalytic Philanthropy
  • Module 2: Streamline, Let Go, and Engage with Your Community
  • Module 3: Understand the System
Purchase the Catalytic Philanthropy Learning Lab Series


  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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