Beyond floating babies to social change philanthropy

Dec 01, 2018

For years, I used the story of babies floating in a river to describe the difference between social change organizations and more traditional charities. In case you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this: a passerby saw a baby floating down the river, jumped in and saved him. Day after day, more babies showed up in the river. The community organized, set up teams to watch for and save the babies floating down the river. Eventually, someone asked why the babies were showing up in the river in the first place. She headed upstream to see who was throwing these babies in the water and to determine how to help prevent it from happening.

While this is a powerful allegory describing social change work, it was missing something in terms of explaining the challenges faced with respect to raising funds for social change. Social change is nuanced, messy and difficult to measure. And raising money for social change efforts is hard because it’s difficult to create an easy-to-understand narrative around complex social issues. My Aha! moment came when I stumbled across David Snowden’s complexity theory, decision-making framework*. This model offered a framework for distinguishing between traditional and social change philanthropy and a way to explain those differences.

While both those who work in social change and traditional charities use the same fundraising techniques, each may have different challenges or opportunities in applying them.

Traditional philanthropy works relatively well for causes that Snowden describes as having either simple or complicated cause-and-effect relationships and social change philanthropy can be best described by a complex cause-and-effect relationship.

Simple cause-and-effect relationship: Building a homeless shelter is an example of a simple linear and predictable cause-and-effect relationship. One can reliably predict the number of homeless people who will receive temporary shelter once it is built.

Complicated cause-and-effect relationship: In a complicated domain, a cause-and-effect relationship may exist, although it is not necessarily clear to all involved. Moreover, there may be multiple answers to the problem. Pathways to Education, started in Toronto, is such an example. It took many attempts to develop the program and many variables were tested until the final four pillars of support were established. Now, increased high school graduation rates are relatively predictable in each of the 14 communities where Pathways operates. It offers predictable cause-and-effect metrics (high school graduation) which appeal to traditional philanthropy donors.

Complex cause-and-effect relationship: Social change works in complexity, where there are not necessarily any right or identified answers to issues. Solutions emerge and reveal themselves over time. It is challenging to determine which of many variables and actors may have led to a particular outcome. A social change approach to homelessness, for example, would aim to eradicate homelessness altogether. That is, it would address causes of problems rather than dealing with the symptoms of those problems.

In terms of raising funds, it is an easier-to-understand message to ask donors to contribute to building shelter, since you’ll know how many previously homeless people will be temporarily housed once the shelter is built. Asking donors to invest in the system-wide change that would be required to eradicate homelessness means asking donors to contribute to something that requires experimentation, that ultimately may or may not work, that has many variables and players and no way to know how or if they are all connected. Can you imagine trying to make that case? That’s what those of us who work in social change are asked to do every day.

Social change organizations rarely have a final, tangible product that can be delivered. For the most part, they deliver process, not programs or products. When successful, they can point to changed laws, a change in beliefs or a change in actions. However, getting there may be circuitous and lengthy – and it may involve challenging the status quo.

In essence, social change is trying to fit its square peg into the round hole of philanthropy. In the project-based world of philanthropy, it is a continuous challenge to reposition the work of process and facilitating relationships into projects or distinct programs that resonate with donors. As challenging as it is, social change initiatives operate within this, the primary funding paradigm in our sector. This difference makes it more difficult for social change organizations to raise money via the current philanthropy model that exists.

One of the challenges with any definition of social change is the fluid and slow-moving nature of change, the social and political context in which a movement finds itself, and changing social norms and values. What may start out as traditional philanthropy – for example, a food bank to help stem hunger in a local community – may evolve into a movement for social change for example, via a fight for income equity.

As pleased as I am that I stumbled across what feels like a great way to distinguish social change philanthropy from traditional philanthropy, the real effort continues to be in raising funds for social change causes. I offer this explanation as a beginning point and invite further discussion. There are many of us working in this arena. What knowledge do we need to share with each other to allow us to be more effective? I look forward to the conversation.

*For more reading related to David Snowden’s complexity theory, check these out:

Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.

Kania, J., Kramer, M., Russell, P. (Summer 2014). Up for debate: strategic philanthropy for a complex world. Stanford Social Innovation Review

This article was originally published on October 15, 2015 – link to original article.  


Increase your chances of fundraising success

Get instant access to the free resource Fundraising's Enabling Ecology Approach and learn how to create the right environment for your fundraising program to thrive.