May 26, 2015

Billion Dollar Bets to Alleviate Poverty: Response to Call for Papers

Over the next three weeks, The Bridgespan Group is asking its community to submit two-page concept papers that offer innovative ways for addressing the question: How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a gift of $1 billion? This is part of a six-month project being led by Bridgespan and Bridgespan Fellow Jim Shelton to discover approaches that can make a substantive difference in addressing entrenched poverty.

By: The Bridgespan Group

Back in June, in his role as a Fellow with The Bridgespan Group, our co-author Jim Shelton shared a question that all of us at Bridgespan grappled with: How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement in social mobility with an investment of $1 billion?

We asked for suggestions from the public for ways to respond, and many did—including Jim in his continuing role as a Fellow. And we want to share an update on some of what we’ve learned so far, even as we continue to crystalize our thoughts. First, a bit of background:

Over the past 10 months, we have been seeking ways to improve social mobility with "big bet” philanthropic giving. We know from other research that Bridgespan has conducted, summarized in "Making Big Bets for Social Change," that there is a large gap in the aspirations of philanthropists wanting to give to social change efforts and their actual giving. To help close that gap, Bridgespan colleagues have sought the best ideas for how philanthropists might give based on areas where researchers, practitioners, and funders are seeing some progress. One such area is early childhood education. Bridgespan recently published a report, Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children: A Funder's Guide to Early Childhood Development from Birth to Five, that outlined 13 ways philanthropists might invest in early childhood education.

For the question we posted in June, we wanted to go beyond early childhood and look across a range of factors affecting people living in poverty. So, we assembled an advisory board comprising 18 leaders of nonprofits, think tanks, and foundations; reviewed research from over 200 reports, policy briefs, and books on the topic of social mobility; and conducted dozens of interviews with practitioners to test theories against on-the-ground realities. Last, but certainly not least, we appealed to the public for concept papers to surface great ideas that we might have missed through our normal research approach.


We are grateful to have received nearly 50 responses that offered a number of powerful and feasible ideas to enhance social mobility. We recognize that we set the bar high for submissions and appreciate that so many people contributed ideas. In a future set of postings and publications, we will be sharing a summary of our research, but for now we want to preview what we learned from the submissions.

They came from local community based organizations, national associations, think tanks, independent researchers, and field practitioners. This trove of great ideas hailed from all areas of the country; from longstanding Bridgespan collaborators, as well as from people wholly new to us.

Authors proposed solutions that ranged from providing direct cash transfers to scaling specific direct service organizations, to supporting community collaboration efforts, to investing in research and use of data to inform government decision making. Some ideas pushed at the edges of innovation within the social sector (using "big data" and new technology to target needs or building on new neuroscience research connecting toxic stress to impaired development). Some submissions pushed on familiar themes with renewed interest and tactics (reforming educational systems, providing jobs, expanding entrepreneurship, and building affordable housing).

The breadth of the submissions also made it clear that the issues confronting people trapped in poverty are deeply interrelated. While many ideas were aimed at achieving discrete outcomes, collectively they emphasized that supporting real progress for individuals and families requires connected and continuous support.

The response surpassed our hopes and evidenced the deep wisdom of many across the social sector.

We are nearing the end of our initial research. Our next steps are to identify ways to share publicly the concepts we received within a practical frame to help tell the story of how philanthropists can make a difference. Please stay tuned over the coming months as we test this frame and calibrate the specific ideas that were developed.

Meanwhile, thank you to every individual and organization who submitted concept papers. We look forward to continuing the conversation.


June 1, 2015

Billion Dollar Bets to Alleviate Poverty: Call for Concept Papers

What would you do if you had a billion dollars to invest in making the biggest improvement in US social mobility, especially for those in the bottom economic quintile?

The submission deadline has passed. Thank you to everyone who submitted ideas.


Public officials and private philanthropists have invested hundreds of billions of dollars trying to improve social mobility for the low-income populations in the US to only incremental effect. And, despite knowing much more about what it takes to progress toward a middle class life, only a limited share of public and private resources have shifted to support evidence-based practice and funding for outcomes.

How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a gift of $1 billion?

As researchers and advisers in the sector, The Bridgespan Group is seeking ways to break through the log jam and put forward approaches that can make a substantive difference in addressing entrenched poverty. To do so, we are leading a six-month project with the help of Bridgespan Fellow Jim Shelton to answer the following question: “How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a gift of $1 billion?” We realize that $1 billion is relatively small in the face of the challenge—and that most philanthropic big bets are orders of magnitude smaller than $1 billion. Yet, we believe this thought exercise can be of use to members of the philanthropic community, as it allows us to share a general framework and a set of actionable investments for changing social mobility outcomes in the United States.

In addition, our research project will:

  • Draw from and point to extensive bodies of research on conditions and individual milestones for achieving social mobility, such as the Social Genome Model—and programs and policies to enable them, and
  • Engage expert thinkers and leaders in identifying potential big bets and creating concepts.

At the end of the project, we will be publishing a point of view on how philanthropists may identify investments, with three to five illustrative $1 billion bets that emerge from that framework.

Request for concept papers

We recognize that we join countless others, including experts, field practitioners, policymakers, and philanthropists, in grappling with this issue.

As part of our research, we are asking practitioners, advocates, and funders to submit two-page documents to [email protected] that lay out responses to the question, “How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement in social mobility with a gift of $1 billion?”

We encourage suggestions of all types—innovative, creative, and catalytic—that outline concrete and practical actions to be pursued via a $1 billion investment. Specifically, we are encouraging participants to think through two important areas:

  • Investments that would lead to significant improvements in upward mobility for low-income individuals and families in the United States
  • The unique role that philanthropy can play (e.g., flexibility of capital versus public funding, freedom from current political gridlock, ability to be invest in activities with differing levels of evidence, expanded capacity for performance measurement, and opportunity to invest in things not otherwise invested in, etc.).

Outlined below are some of the types of questions to consider exploring as you think about bets.

We will include the full set of concepts submitted in prioritizing three to five to develop in greater detail. We also aim to publish a subset of submissions, and have begun conversations with several outlets including,, and NPR. We hope that this will serve as a way to add to and reflect the range of deep and passionate conversations on ways to tackle the challenges of inter-generational poverty and spur greater social mobility for low-income populations in the United States.

2-page essay prompt: “How could a philanthropist make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a gift of $1 billion?”

Deadline: Please submit all entries to [email protected] by Wednesday, July 1, 2015.

Disclaimer: Please note that this is NOT a grant competition. We are seeking ideas to support broader knowledge across the field and to spur healthy dialogue. Please do not submit grant applications, prospectus, etc. that are not tailored to the discussion prompt.

Authors who submit ideas for this process acknowledge and agree that they own all worldwide rights, including copyrights and other proprietary rights, for the submissions and that they have the authority to grant use of these ideas and related materials to The Bridgespan Group. The author also grants Bridgespan a permanent, world-wide royalty-free license to use, modify, publish, or distribute any submissions prepared under this agreement in any way.

Bridgespan retains the right to publish only a subset of submissions at its choosing.

Both Bridgespan and the author agree to acknowledge each other’s contributions to the submissions provided, when citing them to outside audiences.

Example: One approach to answering the prompt

Key areas Potential components/questions to address
  • Articulation of problem addressed by the bet and its impact on social mobility
  • Articulation of the systemic barriers that keep the problem in place
Intended Impact
  • If this works, what will be different?
  • How will the impact be sustained over time?
Scope of investment
  • Population affected/targeted
  • Geographic scope
  • Size and depth of impact/scale
Rationale for philanthropic investment
  • In what ways does it demonstrate the various paths to scale for philanthropists (i.e., direct impact, ability to influence on decision makers, and opportunities to leverage investment to unlock other resources)?
  • At what stage of development are investments focused (i.e., spurring innovation, honing promising programs, building infrastructure for scale, or catalyzing demand or public funding)?
Reason to believe this bet will be different
  • Sequence of actions/investments and associated costs
  • Time to realize impact
  • Path to sustainability (For example, will the funds cover upfront and ongoing costs? Is there a path for the actions this be taken up by public funding or some market mechanism?)
  • Gating factors and/or intermediate steps on the path to the goal
Chance of success
  • Level of risk involved/biggest open questions/leaps of faith
  • Structural forces/countervailing forces

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