May 10, 2017

Highlights from Ten Ways to Make a Big Bet on Social Change

The world is rich in problems to address, but poor in clear pathways to do so. For philanthropists, this sobering reality makes figuring out the “how” much harder than deciding on the “what.” The good news is that there is a menu of “hows,” 10 distinct ways to place a big bet on social change. All are underutilized—some particularly so.

By: William Foster, Elise Tosun, Gail Perreault
Rosenwald School
The Mt. Zion Rosenwald School in Mars Bluff, SC, funded by Julius Rosenwald. Photo: Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Historically, big bets have been critical to many of the nonprofit sector’s biggest success stories. Take Julius Rosenwald’s big bet in the early 1900s to close the gap in educational opportunities for African American children in the southern United States. Along with Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald built a network of schools that helped close the racial gap in years of school completed from three years to half a year by 1940. More recently, Herb and Marion Sandler’s effort to improve the quality of investigative journalism inspired an entirely new organization, ProPublica. Field building and starting a new organization are just two of 10 significant ways philanthropists can approach betting big on social change. This article on Stanford Social Innovation Review describes each pathway and offers guidance on how philanthropists can choose the “right” type of bet.

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Prevalence of the 10 Types of Big Bets

Based on our research of 14 years of big bets by US donors, The Bridgespan Group identified 10 distinct ways donors are making big bets on social change. They include building a field (as Rosenwald did), waging an advocacy campaign, founding an organization, and more. The below chart lists how donors have approached making big bets ordered by prevalence of use. Notable in this data is that the least prevalent approaches have driven many of the nonprofit sector's biggest success stories.


How to Choose a Big Bet

In philanthropy some approaches are simply much more promising than others for achieving a donor’s impact goal. There may be a few types of big bets that could effectively address a given problem, and others that would not. Also, some types will be a much better fit for the donor’s preferred engagement model. The chart below highlights the 10 types of big bets, receptive conditions for each, and the risks for donors to manage to achieve their goals. Click on the image to download a PDF of the chart.

Related Bridgespan Publications

"Making Big Bets for Social Change" by William Foster, Gail Perreault, Alison Powell, and Chris Addy, Stanford Social Innovation Review (November 19, 2015).

"Billion Dollar Bets" to Create Social Mobility for Every American by Debby Bielak, Devin Murphy, and Jim Shelton, (May 1, 2016).

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