Skip to main content

Catalytic Philanthropy

What is Catalytic Philanthropy?

Despite spending vast amounts of money, philanthropists often fall short of solving the world’s most pressing problems. Catalytic philanthropy is an approach practiced by innovative donors to create transformative change. Learn more >

The Evolution of Catalytic Philanthropy

The idea behind catalytic philanthropy can be traced to one of our very first articles, “Philanthropy’s New Agenda: Creating Value” (Harvard Business Review, 1999). In that piece, we noted that funders have a variety of options—beyond their grant dollars—to create social change. To determine the best interventions and roles for them to play, foundations need to develop clear strategies based on data and well-defined goals.

Through our work consulting with foundations, we came to understand that funders could also shape the social agenda by harnessing imaginative and even controversial leadership. This is what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive” work and we explored the implications of this idea in our article with Heifetz “Leading Boldly” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2004).

In our 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Catalytic Philanthropy,” we examined what we saw as a powerful, comprehensive approach to conducting philanthropy. We told the story of Thomas Siebel, a funder who brought all his resources—money, to be sure, but also new thinking, connections, and convening power—to create a series of powerful ads that dramatically decreased methamphetamine use in Montana. By studying the work of funders like Siebel—people who went beyond just writing a check—we identified four distinct practices that made up “catalytic philanthropy,” from taking responsibility for achieving results to creating actionable knowledge.

The concept of “catalytic philanthropy” resonated with the sector. Working with author Leslie Crutchfield, we wrote Do More Than Give, a book that documents stories of impact and advises foundation leaders, trustees, and individuals on how they can play transformational roles in addressing the complex social challenges.

Our thinking about how philanthropy can successfully navigate complexity has continued to evolve. In “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2014), we explored how insights from complexity science can improve philanthropic strategy. With each new client project and interaction with the field, we are learning more about what emergent strategy looks like in action, and we welcome your perspectives and reflections on the topic.

Getting Started with Catalytic Philanthropy


See catalytic philanthropy client projects >