Resource Center: Big Bets for Social Change

11/02/2015

Powerful social-change goals dominate major donors’ philanthropic objectives—providing better educational opportunities for people in need, eliminating disparities in health care, reducing genocide. Yet only a modest proportion of the biggest philanthropic gifts focus on social change. Between 2000 and 2012, just 20 percent of philanthropic “big bets” (those of $10 million or more) by US donors went to social-change causes. The other 80 percent fell into what is best described as traditional institutional giving—primarily to universities, hospitals, and cultural institutions.

For a more complete examination of our research and findings, please read "Making Big Bets for Social Change," which originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

This large “aspiration gap” matters a great deal. While big bets are exceptionally rare, they are behind a remarkable proportion of society’s most effective nonprofits and social movements. They can radically change the organizations or movements they support—from acquiring critical tracts of land containing endangered species, to scaling up proven programs to new geographies, to birthing advocacy campaigns. They can create a leap in their recipients’ abilities or long-term ambitions.

Mindset challenges also get in the way. Big bets on social change carry more public risk and less public reward than gifts to traditional institutions. The bar for success is also higher, with donors expecting a level of outcomes they do not demand in their institutional giving. Hesitancy to invest in finding deals (versus funding the social-change work itself) further compounds the difficulties.


William Foster Discusses Philanthropic "Big Bets for Social Change" at TEDxBeaconStreet 2015

Fortunately, increasing the number of big bets on social change is not dependent on available wealth, willingness to give it away, or desire to support social change. Any of these would be much harder to change. Mindsets around big bets can evolve. Continued bold pioneering by donors and heightened understanding of their lessons learned can help break through the barriers of finding and structuring deals. If donors were to close the aspiration gap, billions of additional dollars would flow to the world’s most challenging problems.

Further Reading on Big Bets

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