A Call for Creative, Catalytic Philanthropy - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

A Call for Creative, Catalytic Philanthropy

Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Philanthropy doesn’t stand still. 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 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. As a result, this type of creative, catalytic philanthropy sets them apart.

Notably, where foundations typically:

  • Get information from proposals and site visits, these funders educate and inform themselves before making grants.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, we are championing catalytic philanthropy as a way to achieve true outsized impact. Indeed, 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 the movement, and embrace these practices.

Catalytic Philanthropy Practices

As you immerse yourself in these practices, you’ll see the potential to have an impact at a larger systems level. Eventually, you’ll raise your sights and think big, awakening your imagination and sense of what’s possible. Consider, actions that appeared risky—convening, collaboration, and advocacy—will become logical, natural steps in your quest for impact. In fact, 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, specifically:

Strengthening Organizations and Communities
    • Providing the flexible, long-term support nonprofits need
    • Building the capacity and leadership of nonprofits and networks
    • Supporting community organizing
Advancing Equity and Inclusion
Convening and Connecting
Nurturing Creativity and Innovation
Influencing Policy and Building Civic Participation
    • Speaking out to focus attention on urgent issues
    • Funding and disseminating research for policy change
    • Promoting civic education, participation and voter engagement
    • Elevating the voices of those who are voiceless in the policy arena
    • Catalyzing reforming antiquated, ineffective systems

When lean funders embrace their unique abilities to learn, nurture relationships, and bring people together, they become powerful change-makers. Furthermore, 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.

Catalytic Philanthropy Learning Lab

This Learning Lab is for all kinds of lean funders 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.

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

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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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