In 2013, a group of funders came together to support the WithoutViolence Fellowship, an initiative to strengthen the communications and advocacy strategies of leaders working to prevent violence against girls and boys. Its goal was to generate more-sustained engagement. The impetuses for the fellowship, which brought together representatives from 11 organizations across the globe, were: 1) a study demonstrating how few global opinion leaders knew about solutions to prevent violence against boys and girls (Bernard van Leer Foundation and Fenton Communications, 2012) , and 2) a growing sense that the field needed a new influence strategy if it wanted to achieve global political priority.                                                         

Two years later, the experiment has yielded many lessons, but one stands out: To make change, philanthropy needs to invest not just within a field, but also in people and organizations that can bridge the gaps between issues and sectors.

Leaders seeking to make social change are like all people: They feel most comfortable associating with others who share their point of view, values, and priorities. Consequently, individuals and organizations driven to solve a particular problem—such as the lack of quality education or climate change—gravitate toward one another, creating tightly knit communities. These “issue tribes” have advantages that drive progress. They support knowledge sharing, allow for collective advocacy, and foster relationships that provide help and encouragement after setbacks.

But they can also be a liability. When like-minded people talk only to one another, an echo chamber forms, making the in-group more susceptible to confirmation bias (our tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions). The tribe, with its shared knowledge and reference points, uses language that turns off the very people it wants on its side.

Take, for example, a meeting where we invited four influencers from media, finance, law, and technology to reflect on how the WithoutViolence Fellows could generate more support for violence prevention solutions from opinion leaders. While asking a question, one fellow referenced the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child using only its acronym, UNCRC. One panelist responded in confusion and then discussed how this acronym reminded her of a meeting on climate change, an issue that she cared about but was not an expert in. At the meeting, there was an icebreaker asking participants to say where they were when the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened. But she didn’t know when the spill happened, let alone where she was at the time. She felt unwelcome. To her, the use of UNCRC—well-known shorthand in the children’s rights world—had the same exclusionary impact as the Exxon Valdez icebreaker.

By unintentionally using language that turns away potential allies, issue tribes lose out on the benefits that come from reaching across fields and sectors. Leaders miss opportunities to make new connections that could lead to strategy improvements and increase their impact. Rather than recognizing the interconnectedness of issues—for example, how progress on preventing violence supports progress on education—they can develop an us-against-them mentality and see people working on other issues as competitors.

As the Exxon Valdez story shows, it’s not only violence prevention leaders who risk staying in their closed circle, and who need help translating their message and building relationships across issues and sectors. Climate change activists, women’s rights advocates, and others share the same challenge. Recent research funded by the Oak Foundation, for example, revealed that a lack of strong cross-sector relationships and shared language among the women’s rights community and business hinders collective action on mutual goals around women’s empowerment (WITTER Ventures/Assemblyfor, 2014).

Philanthropy can help issue tribes break out of their closed networks and accelerate change, but doing so requires that funders support an unorthodox type of investment. Instead of funding only within a specific field, funders need to invest in bridge builders—people and organizations that draw their power from their connections across issues and sectors, and specialize in translating the language of a specific issue tribe for (and building relationships with) potential allies outside of it.

Bridge builders take many forms. They may build bilateral bridges between just two sectors or issues—say, government and violence prevention. Or, through their diverse knowledge and contacts, they may serve as a hub to connect multiple stakeholders across issues and sectors. For example, Jacki Zehner, recently named by The Economist as one of the “Top 50 Diversity Figures in Public Life,” tirelessly connects and strategizes between philanthropic networks, capital markets, film, women’s issues, and impact investing on behalf of women and girls.

Doing this work requires resources. Zehner can do it because she retired with the resources from a career in finance—she is the exception and exceptional—but others playing these critical roles need philanthropic funding for training and support. Funders should: invest in mapping potential bridge builders, help them develop their “translation” skills, and give them the time and resources to develop trusting relationships across issues and sectors. We’ve seen this type of investment happen already with programs like WithoutViolence, and there are early indications that it pays off. Relationships fostered through the fellowship, for example, helped a social entrepreneur expand his program in Latin America by facilitating connections between his organization, government officials, and global NGOs. WithoutViolence also helped broker connections between experts on social investment and leaders of End Violence—a new Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children that wants to incorporate non-traditional financing into its strategy. And to build more impactful relationships between the women’s rights community and business, a new philanthropy-supported coalition called the Win-Win Coalition formed to actively work with bridge builders, businesses, and women’s funds and organizations coordinated by a bridge builder herself. For funders who want to know which mechanisms to use to support bridge builders, these examples illustrate that they can be financed through an NGO or directly through consultancies, which may allow that person to operate freely from institutional constraints.

While there’s more to learn about effective bridge building, they are smart investments. These investments will accelerate progress on issues funders care most about and help create issue movements that reinforce, rather than exclude, each other. By helping leaders break out of their issue tribes, funders can foster relationships and partnerships that better support collective goals and common action.

What Makes a Good Bridge Builder?

  • They have expertise enough. An effective bridge builder knows just enough about an issue to understand the central aspects of the problem, what works to solve it, and the potential controversial and complex issues that arise when addressing it. But they are not the ultimate authorities or suffer from the “curse of knowledge”—a type of bias that makes it difficult for experts to understand the perspective of non-experts and adjust how they communicate appropriately (Camerer et al., 1989).    

  • Others trust them. They have solid relationships with leaders and experts in the field, who respect and understand the bridge builders’ role.

  • They work toward a cause, not a brand. Bridge builders draw their power from operating in the “in-betweens.” To do this effectively, they can’t push the agenda of a specific organization. 
  • They’re connected. Ultimately, being an effective bridge builder is about knowing people and helping them come together to form mutually beneficial relationships.
  • They are skilled communicators. To build relationships, bridge builders have the confidence (and yes, charisma is helpful) to attract people and make them feel heard. The good news is that while many think of these as innate qualities, people can learn communications skills with the right training. 

The characteristics of an effective bridge builder.