Building the field?

Cassie Robinson.
Jun 15, 2018 · 7 min read
Image for post
Image for post

People are talking about being field-builders. Growing the field of an area of practice, or intent around an issue. I really believe in the approach because it recognises that you need to be intentional about partnerships and cooperation, that you need multiple ways of influencing change at any one time, and over a long period of time, and that this needs different people and organisations across sectors and disciplines to work together. It’s the premise on which we set up the Point People back in 2010, and the first piece of content we had on our site was Marc Ventresca’s TedX talk, “Don’t be an entrepreneur, build systems” — which for the purpose of this blog could also be interpreted as “build fields.” There are all kinds of things you can read about this too, from the SSIR article last Autumn on Field Builders as catalysts for social change, to what it means to be a network leader.

“ ….ensure that the power of others grows while their own power fades, thereby developing capacity in the field and a culture of distributed leadership that dramatically increases the collaboration’s efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability. These individuals foster unique cultures and values among their networks that enable those networks to sustain and scale impact.” *

Whilst this approach might be gaining more traction, it still feels like there is a lot to learn, and especially when it comes to recognising where power lies, and how we better design for this kind of work with that in mind. Based on my own experiences, I wanted to share some thoughts on what I (currently) believe individuals, organisations and funders need to have in mind when they are doing field-building work. Think of it as more of a guiding checklist than any kind of answers.


As an individual doing field-building work, what boxes are you putting people in? One of the things we do when trying to design for complexity and large-scale orchestration of people and activity, is categorise people. We look to bring order into things (which is necessary) but in doing so, I wonder what the consequences are of us defining people and organisations as doing X or having Y skill. How are you making your assumptions about who does what in the system?

As an individual are you really clear about where your commitment lies? Is it to the societal changes you want to see happen in the world, to the wider network of people and organisations that you understand can only do this work effectively, if in unison? Or is it to your own organisation and agenda? It might be to all of these things but those who place the societal change first and foremost as their intention, and make that explicit to people, are the ones that gather much more legitimacy to be in a field-building role.

“They celebrate the change-generating network itself above any single person or institution.” *


Are you socialising your power? If you are one of the organisations who is taking a lead in building a field, then part of your role is to continuously socialise your power.

“Partners and peers mobilise a constellation of resources and skills that enables the achievement of a shared vision.” *

What this means in practice is, if you are actively courting funders then you should actively be connecting those funders to other people and organisations in the field. I really like how the Tech For Good community has approached their field-building work. They started meeting monthly at the beginning of 2017- this initial group included funders, intermediaries and people creating content and community. After a year of those meetings, they started to think about how to bring in funding and resource, but they are doing that collectively, rather than one organisation holding all the relationships with multiple funders.

“A field catalyst thinks about how it can direct funding to the field. One of the surest signs that a field catalyst is credible is that it steers funding streams without controlling them. And for its own funding, a field catalyst purposely taps into several sources. Catalysts earn permission to support other stakeholders by proving that they serve the interests of the entire field.”*

If you have resource, are you paying people for their time and contributions? Another important aspect of recognising the power and privilege you have if you are leading field-building efforts in a particular area, is to ensure you value people’s contributions. I like how Doteveryone are paying people to contribute to a publication they’re curating with a specific objective of trying to bring more cohesion to the field of tech ethics (an important part of field-building work). If you want people to contribute to *your* field-building efforts, whether through delivering a session for your programme or sharing their insight and knowledge with you, pay them — especially if you have funding. It’s very hard to create trust (which is essential for field-building work) if you are not transparent or honourable in terms of value flows.

“the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”*


Are you facilitating co-operation and good relationships or are you creating division? I have seen this happen a lot, especially as new fields of work are emerging, which tends to be a small pool of organisations who are often (at this point) jostling for position (and money). Funders go around and have one-to-one conversations with people and organisations, but actually this is a pivotal time to bring an emerging field together. I’d love to see more funders take on an active role in field-building and to do so explicitly. They are in an unique position to gather together organisations that they want to resource and facilitate a conversation that starts with something like “ We want to invest in all of you because we think you’ve all got things to contribute to this field of work, and we want to be transparent in who we’re connecting with, but what we need to do first is have a conversation with you all about where your strengths are, and who is best placed to do which bits of the work that needs doing.” Whilst having that conversation it would probably be useful to also work out what the field is trying to achieve as a whole. What is the field for? What kinds of change does it want to see? Expect everyone to have some different theories about how to get there, but that doesn’t matter at this point. What matters most is that the conversation happens with everyone in the room together.

“Field catalysts are very intentional in what they choose to think about, and they think differently from most other social-change organizations in three important ways. They think about:

● How their field — fractured and fragmented though it may be — can achieve large-scale change

● A long-range roadmap for change and trace links between stakeholders

● What it will take to marshal stakeholders’ efforts”

Are you investing in the same people to do a lot of the knowledge building? Some foundations bring in people and organisations to build new knowledge with them as part of field-building work. Being a “learning partner” gives people power in the system, knowledge is power after all. Are you rotating or distributing that role? And what kinds of people and organisations are you empowering through that role? Are the people and organisations who are given the role of “learning partner” sharing that power or simply using it to raise money for more of their own work – even though the insights they will have generated in that role have of course been generated by a whole system and network of people and organisations.

Are you using your commissioning power to reaffirm the importance of shared power and multiple relationships? Recently a funder commissioned one organisation to do research on the field of systems change – mapping the field to understand who’s doing what, where. This would have been a perfect moment to bring some organisations together to do the work, and incentivise collaborative activity, as well as sharing the power across a wider group. I think there’s a whole bunch of design touchponts during the commissioning process that could incentivise a more collective and collaborative approach and my next post will be an experience map that details these.

Are you putting yourself in the room with the same people and in the same conversations as you always have? This is an obvious one, but as a funder, if you want to build a field, then actively seeking new and diverse voices and organisations is essential. I’ve been really impressed by Brittany Smith at DeepMind Ethics & Society Unit in her active pursuit of unusual suspects.

If you have thoughts that build on this or offer alternative views, I’d love to hear them.

*all of the quotes in this blog are from the two articles that I mention at the beginning of the piece.

The Point People

Blog posts from the Point People —

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store