What’s next for the field of catalytic capital?

We all know that conference season can be an interesting but exhausting trek from one impact investing event to the next. And yet, it also can be an energizing opportunity to forge connections with new partners in order to drive sustainable social and environmental impact that would otherwise not be possible.

We saw the latter in Copenhagen this fall when some of the world’s top catalytic capital practitioners gathered to share ideas on how to bridge capital gaps and build models for the future. Organized by the Catalytic Capital Consortium (C3), the gathering brought together more than 100 attendees from philanthropic investors, development finance institutions, private equity providers, fund managers, intermediaries and others who are leading transformative opportunities for impact.

The Copenhagen convening gave voice to many threads of action in the field. From efforts to activate local institutional capital to strategies that emphasize the connection between climate solutions and social impact, what we heard was a testament to the power of catalytic capital, and how much the field has grown over the past few years.

Connecting to the mainstream

Increasingly, experienced actors are developing programs and tools that make complex catalytic capital approaches more accessible to the mainstream marketplace. For example, NABII Zambia is establishing a credit guarantee fund to expand the capacity of local financial services providers and unlock institutional capital. At the same time, Total Impact Capital has developed a new debt program to accelerate the flow of catalytic capital to high impact investment vehicles in emerging markets that are addressing the needs of enterprises facing a capital gap. With an approach that balances high impact, low risk and a moderate return proposition, the TOTAL Impact Notes seek to create accessible investment opportunities for mainstream investors and attract capital that might not otherwise move toward impact.

Many of our partners have attested to the long and arduous journey of mobilizing new capital. “What we found is that those who are successful in unlocking commercial capital began to engage right from concept,” said Amma Lartey, CEO at Impact Investing Ghana, referencing the organization’s recent study on financing for small and medium-sized enterprises. “They engage with stakeholders in different ways to ensure that, by the time they go to market, [other investors] are there, whether it’s in the capital stack or co-investing with you.”

Similarly, Santiago Álvarez, managing director at ALIVE Ventures, recounted his firm’s path to mobilizing local capital for its first two funds, which address poverty, gender inequality, and climate concerns as part of the same whole. ALIVE leveraged early interest from established global catalytic capital providers to prove the value of its strategy, serving as validation for local investors to join as well.

Collaborations can drive high-impact solutions

Capital providers and fund managers have moved beyond their traditional silos to achieve common goals, not just by sharing models and strategies that leverage their individual expertise, but also by formalizing new alliances that unlock more capital. The reach of this activity reflects the evolution of the global catalytic community.

In India, KOIS worked on designing a new investment platform for expanding access to credit and social security solutions for marginalized, unskilled, and/or informal workers. This effort drew on the contributions of catalytic funders, investors, local lenders, impact evaluation leaders, social enterprises, and non-profits. More broadly, it is designed to help expand learning and advance financial inclusion initiatives in emerging markets, where many small businesses and blue-collar workforces do not have access to optimal financing.

In a different context, think about what is possible when a family office collaborates with a development finance institution (DFI)—as leaders from Ceniarth and US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) described in Copenhagen, referencing their work to launch a fund to address the needs of marginalized people. 

As a philanthropic asset owner, one has flexibility to act quickly and creatively, taking a position that is specifically designed to allow additional capital to flow. The other, as a public agency, has access to significant amounts of financing and in-house expertise, but needs partners that can be nimble and accept risk—especially, coming in early to the fund. Working together, Ceniarth and DFC were able to maximize their strengths, while making the case to other investors to support their aims. 

This and many other instances of successful blended finance strategies are reflected in a series of C3 guidance notes on the seeding, scaling, and sustaining roles of catalytic capital. The in-depth reports are based on C3 Learning Labs with investors, many of whom joined us in Copenhagen, and both illustrate the enormous value of catalytic capital and best practices that help overcome challenges investors may encounter.

Stories shared and lessons learned

Beyond the guidance notes, a new cohort of catalytic capital research is making it easier for investors to effectively support high-impact funds, organizations, and enterprises. Strengthening the evidence base for catalytic capital—including a look both at what works and what doesn’t—has been a core objective of C3’s grantmaking work, and we have supported research that offers critical insights on different sectors and geographies.

For instance, Investisseurs & Partenaires (I&P) recently published an analysis of how catalytic capital fuels growth for SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa, which face a $330 billion financing gap. “Ensuring that catalytic capital is better directed to SMEs is critical to their success and must be a collective effort carried out by the entire SME support value chain,” I&P said. “Closing the financing gap for these underserved companies is key to answer the challenges faced by the African continent.”

In another example, Impact Europe (formerly, EVPA) studied the use of catalytic capital across Europe and published findings that addressed critical questions like, “How can we mobilize more capital to fund a fair and green society that works for all? How can the rate of our transformation match our aspirations?” And in the U.S., new research analyzed the role that catalytic capital plays in non-extractive investing for Indigenous Peoples. “Native Peoples have built economic power; Native businesses are flourishing; and there are ample opportunities to fund successful Native enterprises both on and off reservations,” said First Peoples Worldwide, as part of in-depth analysis it published earlier in 2023.

These are just a few of the dozens of research reports that C3 has supported over the last two years, all of which are available on C3’s new website. By creating a repository of catalytic capital data, analyses, and stories, we hope to help catalytic investors manage how, when, and where they invest for impact.

Living the work, growing the field

In Copenhagen, the “why” for all of these intersecting efforts and viewpoints was clear: it is scale that magnifies impact. Without catalytic capital, we will not be able to see a truly “just transition” to net zero, and climate solutions will not reach their full potential. We will not see enough smallholder famers in Africa grow their operations to create jobs and expand local incomes. We will not see enough artisans in South Asia build their cultural economy and bridge difficult gaps in gender and class. We won’t significantly improve equity and inclusion in the U.S. or Latin America. And we will not make the kind of headway on poverty and health throughout the world that would otherwise be possible.

The recently announced SDG Loan Fund is a good example. It is the final investment from the MacArthur Foundation as part of its C3 portfolio, and it leverages catalytic capital—more specifically a $25 million guarantee—to provide $1.1 billion in financing for emerging markets.

Oftentimes, fund managers spend a great deal of time building buy-in from investors for these types of high-impact efforts. For example, Ankur Capital’s managing director, Ritu Verma, described the importance of educating investors so they understand how and why to follow catalytic capital, and what can be achieved when they do.

“We spend a lot of time educating, even though we actually don’t talk about the mission,” she explained. “We are showing you that the mission is actually a viable opportunity for you to bring in your capital.”

In the words of Chris Jurgens, senior director with Omidyar Network and a member of C3’s project advisory board, catalytic capital practitioners are also “ambassadors to their peers.” We are all working together to bring rigor, depth and transparency to this practice and talking not just about the successes but what can be done differently and better. In doing so, we expand the capacity of the entire field to fuel impact.

What came through clearly in Copenhagen, as in the work of so many of our partners and grantees, is the fact that catalytic capital is no longer just an incubator for innovative ideas (though it is surely that!) or a novel investment niche. It is a vital component of the full spectrum of capital. It directly connects to the world’s social, economic, and environmental health. And it is a core way—sometimes, the only way—for a fund, enterprise, or initiative to move from early promise to profitability and significant, sustainable impact.

Urmi Sengupta is senior program officer on the impact investing team at the MacArthur Foundation and chair of the Catalytic Capital Consortium (C3) Project Advisory Board. Stacy Xiao is C3’s program officer. For catalytic capital news, events, research and information on investment tools that drive progress on social and environmental goals, follow C3 on LinkedIn and on our website.



Scroll to Top
Skip to content