Building and Supporting Sustainable Fields: Views from Philanthropy

A study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Foundations set out ambitious goals in their quest to improve the wellbeing of individuals and societies.  Philanthropic leaders are increasingly aware that to achieve the large-scale impact that they seek, they need to focus on a specific problem and intentionally and coherently approach it from multiple directions. In supporting a diversity of strategies to catalyze and sustain systemic change, foundations often build fields.  Foundations have both helped stimulate work in new fields and supported existing fields.  This paper defines a field, provides examples of how funders build fields, lists the elements of a strong field, and discusses effective donor practices to promote sustainable fields.  The paper concludes with questions that can help to assess field strengths and needs, and a discussion of the best time to exit a field.

This paper is based on a study for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted in 2011 by the same author that resulted in a report titled Exiting Responsibly: Best Donor Practices in Ending Field Support.