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What is Catalytic Philanthropy?

How do you go beyond mere grantmaking to create significant change in a community like Dallas or on an issue like youth substance abuse? The answer is catalytic philanthropy.

Mark Kramer first used the term in Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2009. In 2011, FSG and Leslie Crutchfield wrote an entire book about it—Do More Than Give—documenting stories of impact and advising foundation leaders, trustees, and individuals on how they can play important roles in addressing complex social challenges. It’s an idea that has caught fire with many influencers in the social sector, and has inspired field-wide debates about how social change really happens.

So what is this idea? Even if you’re unfamiliar with its meaning, the words “catalytic” and “philanthropy” together signify that something big is happening.

Simply put: Catalytic philanthropy is an approach practiced by innovative funders to create transformative change beyond writing the check. Truly catalytic philanthropists often 'punch above their (financial) weight' by leveraging their voice, community relationships, and non-grantmaking skills such as convening and capacity building to drive social change.

FSG was originally founded in 2000 as “Foundation Strategy Group,” and although we’ve expanded to work with all types of organizations (and shortened our name), working with philanthropic organizations is part of our DNA, and catalytic philanthropy remains a powerful approach for philanthropists to consider when working on challenging issues around the globe.

In recent years, we’ve worked with a number of funders on their strategies for transformative change, including:

  • Community Foundations of Texas–we partnered with Communities Foundation of Texas to assess how the foundation might catalyze change among Dallas’ economically insecure working families.
  • Conrad N. Hilton Foundation–we partnered with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to develop a strategy to prevent, detect, and address youth substance use early to promote health and wellbeing.

How do you know if catalytic philanthropy is right for your organization? 

We developed a short assessment designed to facilitate a discussion within your organization about your readiness for strategic planning and engaging on complex social issues. Let us know if you use it at your organization, and if we can help.