The article “Making Big Bets for Social Change” expresses concern about the lack of philanthropic gifts greater than $10 million in the social change arena. Only 20 percent of such investments between 2000 and 2012 went to transformative social change efforts like eliminating disparities in health care or providing better educational opportunities for people in need. The other 80 percent went to institutions like universities, hospitals, and concert halls. I am in common cause with the authors. I, too, would like to see more substantial funding for transformational social change.
However, the authors’ concern might extend beyond advocating big bets to thinking about the intersection of big and bold bets. Funders may need to think less about betting big and bold all at once and more about sequencing. We may get more big bets if we sequence more smaller, bolder bets.
The majority of institutional “big bets” are safe ones. They help a municipal library build a new wing or endow a professorship. They help an institution do more of what it was already doing or do it better. They are still bets; after all, there is no sure thing in philanthropy—even a building project could stall. However, the odds are relatively short, especially at the leading organizations that get the lion’s share of large philanthropic gifts.
In essence, these big bets follow-on historical bets to organizations that have achieved a track record of success in building their institutions.
A big bet for a given social change is another creature entirely. It is not the funding of an enhancement to an already attractive status quo; it, by its very name, is designed to produce a change from the status quo—typically a substantial change that brings about greater social justice, equality, or well-being. That means the bet is a step-function bolder—one that, at its inception at least, will have considerably higher risk.
It should come as no surprise that more resources flow to big, safe bets than big, bold bets. It would in fact be a surprise if it were otherwise. They do happen, of course, like President John F. Kennedy’s bold bet bin 1961 that America could put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. But the reason why, half a century later, actions of this sort are still called “moonshots” is because they happen relatively infrequently.
It doesn't have to be so. But big, bold bets require that we take a different approach—a design-centric one. That means not attempting to produce transformation in one fell swoop, which only accentuates the degree to which big bets for social change can feel unduly risky.
Take for example the building of Teach for America (TFA). After Wendy Kopp founded TFA in 1989-90, she found donors willing to bet on her idea of flowing new talent into teaching, to the tune of annual budgets that for years hovered around $1 million. By 2015, with lots of lessons learned and quantifiable results in student achievement, one of her early and repeat funders, the Walton Foundation announced a truly big bet on the organization—$50 million.
Kopp’s story illustrates how social innovators and their funders should aspire to transform the status quo by starting with a low-resolution, cheap prototype. While it won’t be highly successful, it will produce learning for the next prototype and the next and the next. In other words, each successive prototype, will, effectively, de-risk the bet. The bet will get bigger but less bold. That will make it successively easier for donors to fund the next tranche and the next and the next, even if the amount they invest increases with each stage.
This is, of course, the venture capital approach too. Start-up ventures don’t get huge tranches of capital early. They need to make progress toward their eventual goal to earn increased investment. The venture capitalists need to see their next tranche de-risked before doubling down on investment. It can take numerous successive rounds for a business start up to accumulate the investment required to fulfill its business goal.
However, for this approach to fuel transformative social change, funders will need to understand that, eventually, they will need to make a big investment, even though they may wait for proof points to surface so the bet, though big, is no longer frighteningly bold.
Consider the way big pharmaceutical companies phase and fund their clinical trials: It is no use investing in the less-expensive Phase I and II trials unless there is appetite for the very expensive Phase III trial that will come about if the earlier trials succeed.
The Dornsife family of California took this approach to funding access to clean water in Sub Saharan Africa via the global relief and development NGO World Vision. After decades of giving smaller amounts to supporting World Vision’s work in the field, they traveled to Africa with the NGO to observe water projects on the ground. In the process, they met staff and learned their methods. Convicted by the enormous need to give, and trusting the approach, in 2010 they committed $35 million to World Vision’s water program, building capacity that increased the NGO’s rate of bringing water to those in need five times. With evidence of outcomes such as a 70 percent drop in diarrhea, an increase in girls attending school, and greater longevity of the wells themselves, in 2015 the Dornsife’s bet another $40 million, recognized by Forbes as one of the most promising big bets for social change that year.
In the end, the solution is not more big and bold bets on social change deployed all at once. Rather, we need to carefully sequence successive bets over time, increasing in size as evidence of impact mounts. In doing so, we will produce more big and safe bets that effectively advance the commonweal.