In brief

In this blog, Iona Lawrence and Immy Robinson ask whether taking a field-building approach could be valuable to the ‘field of relationships’ and ask for your ideas and partnership as we set out on this inquiry. 

If you’re someone who puts relationships at the heart of what you do, we’d love to hear from you. Please take a few moments to share what a relationships field might mean to you. 

At the start of the 1980s malaria’s worldwide death toll was rising at a remorseless 3 percent annual rate. In 2004 alone, the pandemic claimed more than 1.8 million lives. Then, starting in 2005 and continuing over the next 10 years, worldwide deaths from malaria dropped by an astonishing 75 percent—one of the most remarkable inflection points in the history of global health. In the early 1980s in Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank made some of its first small loans to the rural poor, a group that had been excluded from traditional banking and was widely considered uncreditworthy. By the mid-2000s, microfinance was a leading idea in international development, implemented all over the world, and its originator, Mohammed Yunus, had won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Between 1995 and 2018 the intractable youth cigarette smoking rate in the US declined steadily from 26% to 8%.

What do these breakthroughs have in common? Intentional collaboration. Or what some might call field-building.

What is a field? 

A field is a set of individuals and organizations working to address a common social issue or problem, often developing and using a common set of facts, rules or assumptions to drive their work [1]. In the background of each of these breakthroughs were critical field-building organisations who worked over decades with the support of long-term funding to drive consensus and position a range of organisations, actors and institutions across the field for breakthrough success. 

Take malaria. Many events helped reverse malaria deaths, including the widespread distribution of insecticidal nets. Behind the scenes, though, the intermediary Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership played a critical role in orchestrating the efforts of many actors. RBM, founded in 1998, has never treated a patient; nor has it delivered a single bed net or can of insecticide. Rather, RBM has worked across the field of malaria eradication by helping to build public awareness, aggregate and share technical information with a system of global stakeholders, and mobilize funding.

The hallmarks of a strong field include: a robust and evolving understanding of the data and some shared assumptions about the social issue; a diverse set of actors with a shared identity; a clear field-level agenda; some structures stretching from local to national to international scales which enable collaboration and drive consensus, some leadership from field-builders (or what perhaps SSIR describe ‘as the most impactful leaders you’ve never heard of’); and sustainable and sufficient resources and supportive policies.

The key difference between field-building and other approaches to population-level change? Proponents of field-building neatly insist it’s the difference between the building of roads and the driving of cars on those roads. 

Would a stronger ‘relationships field’ help build a more connected society? 

What we’re interested in is whether this approach has value for relationships. Simple, ordinary, human, relationships. 

We believe that everything works extraordinarily better when ordinary relationships are valued: people are happier and healthier, communities are stronger and more resilient, and organisations and services are more effective and efficient. 

We know that lots of other people share this belief and are striving to help build a better society by building better relationships. For some actors – like befriending services for example – the forging of good relationships is the goal, for others good relationships are the means through which services from health to education can be delivered most impactfully and efficiently. 

We are interested to understand whether and what strengthening the bonds between those committed to strong relationships could achieve and harness for the future: from grassroots movements Grapevine, to organisations who put relationships at the heart of communities like The Cares Family, or Switchback to companies like AO and COOK, to relationship experts like Relate and the Tavistock, and beyond to the academic community, public services, community organisers and anywhere we can have conversations about the importance and centrality of relationships to work, life and community.

What could field building do to further and deepen the role of relationships in the way we live, work and play? Do our disparate efforts have enough in common to be held in a shared field? Could building relationships and shared infrastructure which connects those who are striving to build better relationships help accelerate progress and bring others along on the journey? Is now the right moment?

We know we aren’t the first people to have asked these questions, nor are we alone in asking them. And we can’t answer them on our own. So we would love and very much need your help. 

How do we explore these questions? 

2020 has been an extraordinary year of recognition for ordinary relationships. The Moment We Noticed from the Relationships Project has mapped the ways that relationships have come to the fore in the face of Covid-19. Relationships between NHS workers and their patients, between neighbours, with the businesses on our high street, between critical community actors like post men and women and their shielding residents to name but a few.

Forged in reciprocity and care, emanating love and solidarity, it’s simple relationships between people which have made the difference for many during a time of unprecedented change and challenge. It’s been the difference between good or ill health; between connection or loneliness; between belonging or isolation. 

With thanks to support from the Ideas and Pioneers Fund at Paul Hamlyn Foundation alongside the Relationships Project’s funders we are glad to be setting out on this exploratory journey armed with wisdom and advice so far from those who’ve explored field building including Louise Armstrong and colleagues at Forum for the Future, Cassie Robinson whose blog here is pinned firmly to our pin boards and Joe Mitchell who is exploring similar themes in the democracy field

To kick things off, we are looking to identify the bright spots where relationships are being prioritised and placed at the heart of things.

We’re looking to connect with the people and organisations who are thinking, researching, designing, building, funding and convening around relationships. We don’t want to just sit in the same rooms we have done for the past few years. We want to reach beyond. And in partnership with all those who are interested in this work we are looking to ask these questions:

  • Is the language of relationships familiar to them? Is it useful? Is other language better? 
  • What are they up to when it comes to relationship building? Is it useful to group people together? If so, how? 
  • Are they already in touch with other ‘relationship builders’? Are they sharing resources, languages, ideas, approaches? Do the beginnings of a field already exist?
We then want to work with anyone who is keen to understand what greater collaboration and stronger relationships across the field could achieve and how.

Ultimately we are interested in understanding whether a field-building approach would be valuable to those within the field in overcoming some of the challenges they are facing as they seek to strengthen relationships and their relational practice. Questions we’re asking ourselves include: 

  • What are the barriers to strengthening relationships in different spheres of the field? 
  • What are the long term breakthroughs the field of relationships should be seeking to build consensus around as it pursues its mission of a relationship-centred world? 

How can I get involved? 

We’d love your help in exploring these questions. As a first step, we’d be most grateful if you’d: 

  • Complete this survey
  • Share it with the top five people you think might be interested in this work
  • Share it with your wider networks on social media

Second we’d love to hear from you if you have experience of field building work that we can learn from or if this work is of interest to you in any other way. Please get in touch with or 


[1] Fields fall into two categories: those that are focused on a specific problem (e.g., achieving universal access to high-quality prekindergarten) and those focused on broad issue areas (e.g., early childhood). Despite the clear differences between specific problems and broad issue areas, both are still considered fields.