The Case for Investing in Community-Led Social Change Initiatives

06/24/2020

Summary

Bridgespan Article Shares Insights for Funders on Supporting Peer Groups as They Lead Their Own Change
BOSTON, MA—June 24, 2020—What does it look like when groups of people pull together and collectively build their own approaches to enhancing their lives, without a social sector actor taking the lead? Why should philanthropists support such peer-driven efforts? And how might funders abet peer-driven change, without getting in its way? A Bridgespan Group article published today on Stanford Social Innovation Review online, “When Peers Work Together to Drive Social Change,” explores these questions.
 
According to Rohit Menezes, a Bridgespan partner and coauthor of the article, “This research draws from the activities in communities we visited and is informed by the work of observers who have elevated community-centered approaches to social change. For us, it is a further step toward exploring peer-driven change, engaging funders who might want to lean into it, and surfacing some initial insights for funders who decide to pursue it. We are eager to continue the conversation.”
 
The article describes peer-driven change as having the following attributes, which the Bridgespan research team observed in three field visits:
  • Self-determination and initiative: In Boston, with facilitation from the Family Independence Initiative, families define and lead for themselves the improvements they seek in their lives and communities since they are closest to their challenges and know best how to overcome them.
  • Mutual support: The San Francisco Bay Area’s Iu Mien refugee community, informed by the experiences of pioneering peers who have succeeded at getting around barriers, help each other by sharing knowledge and resources and have created their own community nonprofit, the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association.
  • Financial capital: In Rwanda, families and individuals share funding from internal sources (such as savings groups), as well as unrestricted funds from an external source, Spark Microgrants, to collectively advance their lives.
Coauthor and Bridgespan Partner Willa Seldon said, “Change that is authored and directed by individuals and families has been an engine of social progress since time immemorial. Yet for many social sector actors, this phenomenon is often hidden in plain sight. As a result, most philanthropists we know have overlooked this naturally occurring resource when they launch ‘interventions’ directed at low-income individuals and families.”
 
Bridgespan Manager and coauthor Simon Morfit cited earlier work by social entrepreneur Mauricio Miller, author of The Alternative: Most of What You Believe about Poverty Is Wrong, as inspiration for the article. “We were privileged to work with Mauricio, who served as a Bridgespan Fellow last year, and are deeply grateful for his counsel as we examined peer-driven change more closely.”
 
The article, along with three case studies published on Bridgespan.org, articulates the rationale for funders to support peer-driven change, emphasizing that:
  • People experiencing poverty—like anyone else—are resilient and resourceful, and possess the capacity to improve their lives. Nearly 3,000 individuals in Boston, with support from their peer groups, have (among other things) launched their own businesses, obtained their first full-time jobs, reduced their credit card debt, and returned to school.
  • When peers act as role models for what is possible, other peers follow their lead—and their efforts compound. Because Iu Mien peers modeled ways to advance economically in the United States, other peers followed their lead, and the community went on to raise more than $500,000 to build a cultural center and temple.
  • People are more creative and committed when they have the freedom to make their own choices. By having the space to collectively choose a shared goal and initiate projects to achieve it, Rwandan communities succeeded in increasing revenues from their harvests, obtaining a new roof for every home and an invaluable cow for every family, as well as dramatically increasing their social cohesion.
 
When asked why more funders were not embracing this approach, Menezes posited, “Perhaps it’s because it requires a very different way of working, where funders cede control to the very individuals and families they seek to help. That means ceding power, including transferring financial resources directly to communities, without preconditions.”

Nevertheless, peer-centric approaches to confronting social challenges are growing by the day—and entering society’s mainstream. The US government’s no-strings-attached stimulus checks to most Americans, to help them get through the COVID-19 crisis, reflects one of peer-driven change’s key features: the unconditional transfers of cash to peers, who often know best how to put the money to work. The sharp rise of mutual-aid efforts, also spurred by the pandemic, speaks to another key feature of peer-driven change: mutuality, and the compounding effect of informal peer networks meeting the new challenges of those around them.
 
“We aren’t proposing that funders entirely upend their entrenched processes,” said Seldon. “Rather, our hope is that funders and other social sector actors might do both in parallel: that even as they continue to drive the established processes with which they are comfortable, they might lay down a few new tracks for peer-driven change, and run the trains in parallel. If we accumulate enough learning, validation, and support, peer-driven change just might become a pivotal part of the way philanthropy does its work. ”
 
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About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, philanthropists and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With offices in Boston, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, and Johannesburg, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, impact investing, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
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