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.
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
- Big Bet Philanthropy: How More Givers Are Spending Big And Taking Risks To Solve Society's Problems, Forbes (December 20, 2016)
- The Biggest Bets from 2000 to 2012 - Infographic
- Podcast: Making Big Bets on Social Change, Business of Giving Podcast, The Chronicle of Philanthropy (March 14, 2016)
- "Big Bets and The Aspiration Gap," Philanthropy (Winter 2016)
- "Most Large Gifts Don't Go to 'Big Bets' on Social Change, Study Finds," Philanthropy News Digest (November 20, 2015)
- "The Philanthropist's Dilemma: Why Donors' Biggest Gifts Aren't Going To The Causes They Hold Most Dear," Forbes (November 19, 2015)
- "Inside 3 'Big Bets' for Social Change," The Chronicle of Philanthropy (November 19, 2015)
- "Want Social Change With Donations? Act Like Venture Capitalists," Bloomberg.com (November 19, 2015)
- "Here Are Some Of The Biggest Philanthropic Bets On Social Change From 2015," Forbes (November 14, 2015)
- "For Guidance, Would-Be Philanthropists Turn to Peers," The New York Times (November 13, 2015)
- "Major Foundations, Eager for Big Change, Aim High," The New York Times (October 31, 2015)
Read the Big Bets Blog on Forbes
Bridgespan Partner William Foster writes about the ways big bet philanthropy can change the world in this blog. Recent posts include:
- 10 Years Later: Bloomberg’s Big Bet on Tobacco Reduction, November 30, 2016
- Working Together to Make a Difference, November 30, 2016
- Big Swings for Social Change, November 30, 2016
- Four Ways Charitable Giving Can Save Our Democracy, November 29, 2016
- Philanthropy and the Death Penalty, October 18, 2016
- More Philanthropists Should Think Like Venture Capitalists, August 17, 2016
- A "Wow" Moment in US Philanthropy: MacArthur Foundation's $100 Million Competition, June 28, 2016
- Three Ways Philanthropists Can Invest in Market to Revive The American Dream, June 8, 2016
- Why Big Donors Are Under Fire for Big Gifts, April 27, 2016
- Philanthropy Takes a Stand in Social Movements, March 16, 2016
- Wall Street Philanthropy: The 6 Do's And Don'ts From The Trading Floor, Feb. 24, 2016
- A Billion Dollar Bet for Kids: Welcoming the Revolutionary Blue Meridian Partners, Feb. 2, 2016
- Can Big Prizes Blow Open the Door to Social Change?, January 19, 2016