New Bridgespan Study of 15 of the Greatest Social Impact Stories of the 20th Century Reveals How Philanthropy Can Advance Large-Scale Systems Change

08/22/2017 | 2 min |


Analysis surfaces a framework for action: majority of initiatives took at least 20 years to achieve success; involved at least one philanthropic investment of $10 million or more
BOSTON, August 22, 2017—Today, the Bridgespan Group published a new paper, Audacious Philanthropy, in Harvard Business Review that details key success factors from 15 of the greatest social impact stories from the 20th century—from child passenger safety to global CPR—and suggests a useful framework for 21st century philanthropists aspiring to advance large-scale change. Nearly 90 percent of the efforts took more than 20 years to diffuse results, 80 percent involved changing government funding flows, policies, or actions; nearly 75 percent involved active coordination among key actors; and roughly 66 percent featured one or more philanthropic investments (“big bets”) of $10 million or more.   
Susan Wolf Ditkoff, co-author of the study and a partner at The Bridgespan Group said, “Philanthropists often aim to achieve large-scale, extraordinary impact. Yet newer philanthropists can experience frustration if their efforts don’t produce the desired results within a relatively short timeframe, which can cause them to retreat into seemingly safer, less ambitious grantmaking. In reality, it takes sustained attention over decades to win large-scale, landmark victories, and these historic success stories provide lessons on how to do it.” 
Added Abe Grindle, a manager at Bridgespan and Ditkoff’s co-author: “In analyzing this diverse group of success stories, ranging from broad access to end-of-life hospice care to marriage equality in the U.S., we aimed to provide philanthropists and change leaders with a kind of ‘check list’ for elements of change that we observed repeatedly across  initiatives. Of course, these are highly complex efforts with countless factors influencing the results, but we hope that greater focus on these five common elements might help other efforts to increase their odds of success.” The five elements are:    
Build a shared understanding of the problem and its ecosystem
Many of the historic social impact success stories began with funders who dedicated resources to understanding and framing the problem they were trying to solve. Importantly, they continued to follow the problem as it evolved over time, building and rebuilding consensus on its definition among stakeholders.  While philanthropically-funded research often helped to explain the full impact of the problem—who it affected, why it persisted, and how existing structures and incentives favored the status quo—reports never constituted a “one and done.” Ongoing monitoring and problem re-definition made the difference, often requiring collaboration between philanthropists, government agencies, and other stakeholders.
Set “winnable milestones” and hone a compelling message
In these stories, leaders identified and rallied around a concrete and emotionally-compelling objective that could be measured and acted upon. In some cases, such as the campaign for marriage equality in the United States, identifying a truly compelling message resulted from philanthropists investing in message testing, polling, and focus groups – not standard fare for philanthropy. 
Design approaches that will work at massive scale
Over the last century, billions of philanthropic dollars have been poured into perfecting social services, products, or strategies viable for small groups, but unworkable or unaffordable at the full scale of the need. These stories describe how blueprints for the most successful social change initiatives envisioned impact at massive scale from early days. This meant avoiding reliance on scarce resources, targeting an end-state and way to get there with a model for sustainable funding and leadership at large scale. Often requiring continued iteration and innovation, “scalability” remained a key design parameter, co-equal to impact.
Drive (rather than assume) demand
Another common element:  investing to catalyze demand for the new product, service, or practice. Philanthropists and others funded research on what beneficiaries really wanted and needed, and supported robust marketing efforts and strong distribution networks that could both serve existing demand and unlock more. The best efforts put beneficiaries (often poor and underserved) at the center and treated them as respected customers whose demand needed to be understood and earned. A predecessor Bridgespan study, “Selling Social Change,” found such investments rare.  
Embrace course corrections
To achieve winnable milestones over decades, each effort had to adapt and improve as it progressed, in particular adjusting to changes in context over decades.  For many, this sustained attention meant investments in data and measurement for learning purposes, and an understanding by philanthropists or other funders that such changes were an expected and essential part of the work.
For philanthropists who may use this framework as a guide for investment, Ditkoff notes, “Flexible, creative philanthropy is critical to success. Across these 15 initiatives philanthropists did not themselves need to engage across all five elements of change, nor did they need to go it alone. At their best, philanthropists identified funding gaps left by others, focused resources at specific points of leverage, and helped propel historic wins for society.”
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group is a global organization that collaborates with mission-driven leaders, organizations, and philanthropists to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. We bring a rigorous approach, shared passion, and deep social sector experience. Our services include consulting to nonprofits and philanthropists, leadership development support, and developing and sharing insights.
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