Ecosystem Catalyzation

A new approach for philanthropy

Navigating an increasingly complex world requires a seismic shift in the way that actors in the field of philanthropy and social change understand their role and define their strategies. Taking an ecosystem perspective and approaching change as an ongoing process of catalyzation helps us to step into the unpredictable dynamics of interconnected systems with more strategic clarity about our role, posture, and key interventions.

Understanding ecosystems

In evolutionary biology an “ecosystem” is defined as a community of diverse and interdependent living organisms in conjunction with the physical environment. Despite fluctuations in populations and disturbances in their environment, ecosystems tend towards ecological stability, or equilibrium. This process of co-evolution between a changing environment and the nested ecosystem is possible through the development of new features and functions at the level of the organisms involved. The ability of an ecosystem to maintain equilibrium despite disturbances is called resistance and how readily an ecosystem returns to equilibrium after being disturbed is called resilience. Ecosystems with higher biodiversity, redundancy, and modularity tend to show greater resistance and resilience when facing disruptive events. Some ecosystems are built around a keystone species that have low functional redundancy. This means that there are no other species in the ecosystem that can serve the same function and if the species were to disappear from the ecosystem, no other species would be able to fill its ecological niche.

Applying ecosystemic thinking to philanthropic practice, we use the term ecosystem to refer to “socio-ecological systems”, where diverse and interconnected actors are intricately tied by cultural practices, identities, intentions, roles, beliefs, values, and available resources. In this understanding, ecosystems yield societal value that transcends the capacity and intentions of individual actors.

If we want to work consciously with the shifting dynamics of an ecosystem, we need to redefine our understanding of terms, like “actor”, “change”, and “impact”, which are coming from language developed for linear and predictable processes. Our understanding of “strategy” will also shift as soon as we acknowledge that we cannot control and predict change.

Understanding catalyzation

Catalyzation can be understood as a continual process of stimulating the reconfiguration of an ecosystem. Through this process, the key factors that define the core-functioning of the ecosystem, such as power, resource flows, relationships, and purpose, are reconfigured.(1) Stimulation may happen on different levels simultaneously until there is a tipping point and a new equilibrium is reached in which emergent patterns become dominant.

In our understanding, a “catalyst” can be any element from within the given ecosystem or from the wider environment that is influential in stimulating a re-configuration. Some catalysts may not have any intention to affect change or even be aware of the ecosystem they are influencing. However, in this text we are focusing on actors that consciously step into a catalytic role with the intention of stimulating and nudging the ecosystem towards a new value proposition and greater resilience.

Ecosystem Catalyzation as an approach

When working with the concept of Ecosystem Catalyzation, we are entering the area of pattern-based leadership. As we seek to understand an ecosystem’s shifting dynamics, we engage in a continual process of stimulating and learning from emergent patterns. This approach includes four main shifts(2):

  • From cause-and-effect to probe-sense-respond
  • From pre-defined outcomes to learning-oriented approaches
  • From fail-safe design to safe-to-fail experimentation
  • From efficiency to resilience

There are various complexity-oriented frameworks that can help us identify how and where to intervene in an ecosystem. In partnership with resense360, we have developed a methodology based on our collective practices called “ecosystem cards” which works with six key areas for strategic intervention.(3)

The design of each intervention will depend on the intention of the intervenor(s) and their understanding of an ecosystem’s current and highest potential. Strategic experiments made to stimulate certain parts of the ecosystem can give rise to new patterns on very different levels. As such, interventions should be designed to be small enough and safe-to-fail, allowing us to observe and learn from the reactions of the ecosystem.

Rather than looking for ways to improve efficiency, working towards resilience should be the principle guiding all interventions. We can nurture the adaptability and self-sustainability of the ecosystem and actors within it by following three key principles:

  1. Diversity: Integrate new and relevant elements, such as actors or resources, to increase the total number involved in the ecosystem.
  2. Redundancy: Involve multiple actors performing the same role, particularly where there is a higher chance they may step out of the ecosystem.
  3. Modularity: Ensure multiple and alternate connections between actors in the ecosystem to reduce the risk of value flows being interrupted.(4)

Strategic choices regarding structure & roles

Actors wishing to work with Ecosystem Catalyzation as an approach need to decide how to best support the structural development of the ecosystem and which role they can effectively and ethically fulfill.

1. Envisioning the structure with the highest potential

Defining a new value proposition involves collaboratively envisioning the highest potential of the given ecosystem. One relevant choice is to understand whether the ecosystem’s structure should be:

  • centered around one keystone organization—aka one orchestrator—or
  • more decentralized with key responsibilities shared across various actors—aka a multi-hub structure.

Another structural choice relates to whether we pursue a strategy of exaptation or adaptation:

  • Exaptation is a process by which existing features acquire functions for which they were not originally intended. As a strategy this would involve working with and repurposing existing infrastructure.
  • Adaptation is a process by which new features are developed in response to changing circumstances. As a strategy, this would involve developing new infrastructure within an existing ecosystem.

The answers to both choices depend on the given structures and potential of the ecosystem, as well as our perspective on which structural path would offer the highest level of resilience to the ecosystem in the future. These choices will inform the design of strategic experimentation and the interpretation of the observed emerging patterns.

2. Clarifying your role

Clarity of role is a fundamental precondition for any actor wishing to sustainably support an ecosystem towards reconfiguration and resilience. We need to critically reflect on:

  • Needs of the ecosystem
  • Legitimacy of power
  • Commitment and intentions

One strategic choice that informs all further interventions is whether to follow the logic of a permanent orchestrator or a temporary catalyst.(5)

  • An orchestrator is an internal and continuous role that requires the legitimacy to act in the name of the ecosystem. Like a keystone species, an orchestrator aims to support the efficacy of the ecosystem while becoming a central and permanent node.
  • A catalyst is a temporary role within the ecosystem. Actors that step into this role design their interventions towards an envisioned new value proposition with the underlying intentions to support self-sustainability of the ecosystem and to eventually step out of the role, and potentially the ecosystem, without causing major irritations.

Foundations with their specific characteristics, including financial resources, convening power, and flexible time horizons, must carefully consider the roles they can effectively and ethically fulfill. If a foundation is already a trusted actor within an ecosystem and has the intention to stay over a long-time horizon, it may be in a position to assume the role of an orchestrator. If it is starting out as an external actor, it must reflect on whether it has the mandate to enter the ecosystem as a catalyst or whether it can play an equally essential role in nurturing the conditions for Ecosystem Catalyzation as a resource-provider e.g. by providing flexible funding that supports relational work.

Implications for the field of philanthropy

As a field, we are learning how to become better partners in navigating complexity and deepen our understanding around the “how” of relational approaches. Ecosystem Catalyzation opens promising pathways in this, but it requires a shift in the way we work. This is not just another tool in the box. To embrace this approach, we must unlearn preconceived notions based on cause-and-effect logic and instead learn how to engage in a continual process of stimulating and learning from emergent patterns.

Actors wishing to sustainably support an ecosystem towards a new value proposition and greater resilience should be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Are we working in a context where the approach is appropriate?
  • Are we ready to prioritize resilience over efficiency in practice?
  • Are we open to learn from our experiences with the ecosystem and integrate them into our own organizational logic?

With Connecting Networks, iac Berlin offers a learning environment for individuals and organizations working with relational and collaborative approaches in the fields of philanthropy and social change.

Ecosystem Catalyzation was at the center of the Connecting Networks Learning Lab which took place in Oxford, UK in November 2023. The gathering was hosted by iac Berlin in partnership with the Atlantic Institute, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, the Skoll Foundation, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The Learning Lab brought together over 30 professionals and was facilitated by resense360, Nahari, and iac Berlin.


  1. Leadbeater, C. & Winhall, J. (2020): “Building better systems: A green paper on System Innovation.” The Rockwool Foundation, (31-38).
  2. Our thinking has been inspired by the Cynefin Framework and the latest research by Paulo Savaget & colleagues on social entrepreneurs as Ecosystem Catalysts.
  3. More information on this customizable approach can be found soon at
  4. Savaget, P., Ozcan, P. & Pitsis, T. (2024): “Social entrepreneurs as ecosystem catalysts: The dynamics of forming and withdrawing from a self-sustaining ecosystem.” Journal of Management Studies, (19–20).
  5. Our thinking draws on and adds to the discussion on “Ecosystem Catalyst versus Orchestrators” in the latest research by Paulo Savaget & colleagues.

This article was orginally published in the iac Berlin Activity Report 2023. The entire report is available as free download:


If you want to know more about Ecosystem Catalyzation or our Learning Labs, please contact:

Naomi Martin