14 February 2023

The quiet might of infrastructure: How philanthropy support organisations can catalyse transformation

Irrespective of where you are sitting in the philanthropy field, it is likely you have experienced a nagging sense of your work being dwarfed by the scale of intersecting environmental, economic and social crises.

The pace of aggravation is relentless. We see unintended consequences run amok and notice our efforts – to mend, mitigate or prevent – moving at a distressingly slower pace. It is as if our work is not allowed the time it needs for the desired effects to take hold, spread, and shift the dominant dynamics.

Are there alternatives? Can we work in ways that yield different results?

Transformation as an aspiration for philanthropy

The increasing complexity of our socio-economic systems and the entangled challenges they spur are now visible to us. We have not had a long practice, as a society, in basing our policies, resources and interventions on the patterns and principles we are now collectively coming to notice.

Philanthropy’s growing ambition is not only to work further upstream, closer to what we are understanding as root causes of these complex challenges, but to leverage its capacities towards transforming the ways in which systems operate – at the visible layer, and especially at the DNA code layer.

It was not always so.

In his ignite speech at the PEX online community meeting on 14 December, speaking on impact alliances, Tim Draimin placed philanthropy’s role in a timeline. It showed an increasing level of sophistication in its responses — from the origins in noblesse oblige, as charity, to more diverse and elaborate approaches like strategic philanthropy, social finance and impact investing, prototyping social innovation, collective impact and systems change.

What role for philanthropy infrastructure (now)?

If philanthropy is increasingly moving towards transformation, reflecting our growing understanding of how systems work, where does its infrastructure stand in terms of its goals, roles and practices?

When looking at the innovations in the field, we can notice some common threads.

One is a widening of the sphere of partners, those who are made a part of philanthropy-resourced efforts of change, often from proximate fields like community development, social entrepreneurship or impact investing. Besides cross-fertilising each other’s practices, this has brought attention to relationships — to the conditions, capacities and resources required to bring new stakeholders into relating, and also to hold these relationships in stable configurations like communities of practice, collaboratives or alliances.

Another thread is a result of philanthropy responding to the complexity of the challenges it seeks to address by becoming more complex itself, evolving into a philanthropy (eco)system. The proliferation of actors, approaches, methodologies, themes and levels of action has led to an increasing specialisation in the functions each part plays within the ecosystem — research and knowledge generation, incubation and capacity building, assessment and learning, advocacy and field representation etc.

These new approaches, relationships and specialised functions, at the core of infrastructure work, can be levers of transformation.

Why a catalyst infrastructure?

A new layer of work that has emerged from this intricacy is tending to and strengthening the ecosystem, caring for how these many parts know of each other and, at its best, build on each other’s work to drive stronger effects.

‘Tending to the ecosystem’ might seem like a passive role, as if there is little agency in something that sounds like maintenance (and part of the work of philanthropy infrastructure organisations is, indeed, keeping things running).

But what if there is a powerful position in this ‘ecosystem work’ that involves acting from an identity of a catalyst of transformation?

Philanthropy support organisations are at the intersections of functions and constituencies, each with their own partners and allies, with a reach that spreads several degrees. By trying new things in their practice, they can lead by example and bring new ideas and inspiration. They can foster conversations with their constituents – donors, partners, members – and support those in their own roles and leadership. And very importantly long term, they can help capitalise resources – financial, knowledge, relationships, legitimacy – and influence the paradigms on how these resources flow.

‘Catalysts expand the field of change-making through agile philanthropic architecture that incentivises the emergence of multiple new paths and new actors as nodes in an expansive network, decentralising and distributing the capacity of enacting change. Catalysts operate from a frame of possibility and potential, allowing space for alignment to emerge, rather than from a frame of linearity, control and coordination.’ — Alina Porumb, INSPIRE

It is difficult to overstate how disproportionate the need for new players and new solutions is relative to our systems’ current capacity to respond to accelerating and cascading challenges.

How might we multiply and resource the new? How could we strengthen emergent practices that are aligned to what the future asks of us?

Exploring catalyst practices

During a recent PEXcommunity exploration on collective impact, many ‘catalytic practices’ emerged in conversation  as existing examples and as potential new practices.

In response to participants’ interest to explore this topic further, we are convening into an emergent working group meeting this February 23rd, 2023. Join us!

  • Sensing the emergent needs of the system — lowering the costs of collaboration, incentivising greater risk-taking, lowering institutional egos, curating connections between different levels of work and sectors, building spaces for intersectional conversations and infrastructure for new practices as transition design and collective imagination;
  • Observing and building knowledge from practice — attention to work happening at the edges, new forms of data generation and evidence, investigating assumptions, distilling principles from emergent practices, tool-building, repositories of examples;
  • Integrating emergent learning back into the field and beyond it  — nuanced evidence-based storytelling, communities of practice, shared learning and change journeys for partners, funders and members;
  • Spotting opportunities and potential — engaging new generations of philanthropists, supporting new change-maker ideas, organisations and movements, bringing more entrepreneurial spirit to the sector.

Questions for exploration in the ‘Catalyst Infrastructure’ work group — bring yours!

  • What effective catalytic practices are already happening in our field? Sharing strategies, practices, tactics and stories of transformation.
  • How can we, as individual organisations and collectively, as an ecosystem, organise our capacities to be more catalytic?
  • How can we stimulate, resource and link up emergent players?
  • How can we bring about more systems-level collaboration? How can we seek and speak of sector or system-level effects, shifting the expectation of organisation level impact indicators for impact that happens at system level?
  • What new capacities and skills might be needed? And very importantly, who else might be part of these conversations? Where do we find inspiration? Who evolves and learns in parallel with us, in ways that are meaningful to us?
  • What inspires you to try new things and move beyond familiar practices?


Alina Porumb
Director, INSPIRE Community Foundations
Alexandra Stef
Community & Learning Director, INSPIRE Community Foundations