The word deviant is such a strong cultural label that many people interpret it to mean something similar to evil. Calling someone “deviant” calls up images of illicit or extreme criminal behavior.

But that’s not what deviance really means.

Within sociology, the phrase deviance describes actions or behaviors that violate cultural norms. Since cultural norms are not objective or even necessarily logical, they require deviant behavior to define them. When cultural norms are positive and healthy, deviant behavior is systematically curtailed. But not all norms are positive and healthy.

All deviant behavior is a challenge to cultural norms. When those norms are not positive and healthy, deviant behavior highlights the existence of the cultural norm and calls into question its validity. The line separating cultural norms from deviant behavior is fluid. The line is the “edge” between what constitutes culturally acceptable behavior and behavior that the status quo rejects and seeks to minimize.

I think the status quo in philanthropy is pretty lame. The cultural norms which dictate what is acceptable behavior in the social sector are not set in stone. Like all cultural norms, they are not objective or even necessarily logical. They deserve to be challenged.

Challenging the status quo in philanthropy requires a flourishing of deviant philanthropy.

What might deviant philanthropy look like?

  • Foundations that publically belittle nonprofits which they believe are poorly run.
  • Nonprofits that pay their top employee at rates similar to the private sector including eye popping bonuses for outstanding results.
  • Foundations and nonprofits deploying lobbying and advocacy strategies to the fullest extent of the law and viewing themselves are critical players in American politics.
  • A large foundation using its endowment to invest in a concentrated pool of publicly traded companies whose operations they feel harm society or the environment and then launching a high profile shareholder proxy battle (in process by which shareholders can change corporate policies).
  • A foundation or nonprofit ousting the existing board and replacing them exclusively with intended beneficiaries of their programs.

Do I think these would all be good ideas? Of course not! They are deviant ideas and like any upstanding member of society, these deviant ideas violate my understanding of cultural norms and make me uncomfortable.

But that’s the point.

Maybe some of the cultural norms in the social sector are actually poisonous. Just as historical cultural norms such as racism and sexism were once accepted before they were rejected and became deviant behavior themselves, maybe there are elements of social sector norms that deserve to be rejected and relegated to the status of deviance.

It is difficult to say which deviant challenges to philanthropy’s status quo will one day become cultural norms themselves and which are rightfully rejected. But I think it is well worth our time to explore the potential of deviant ideas to positively impact the practices of our field.

If you think about the set of practices which are acceptable cultural norms as existing within a circle and deviant behavior existing outside that circle, the line separating the two might be referred to as the “Edge”. It is with this definition in mind that I named the new Tactical Philanthropy series Exploring the Edge. It is in this area, the barely acceptable, grey area of cultural norms that the battle to reframe our sector plays out.

What ideas do you think are currently “deviant” but should become an accepted part of philanthropy’s cultural norms? Submit your deviant idea to Exploring the Edge and let’s start challenging the status quo.

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