Social movements v. social entrepreneurs

David Callahan wrote a great piece on Inside Philanthropy yesterday, describing how the rise of funding for social entrepreneurs hasn’t been matched by a rise in funding for social movements. (HT Rakesh Rajani)

Callahan points to the fundamental shifts in values and discourse that have happened as a result of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, LGBT rights organizing, Black Lives Matter, and the “new labor movement” of low-income worker organizing. In contrast, he asks, what social entrepreneurs have orchestrated significant change in the United States in recent years?

He notes that conservative donors like the Kochs get the importance of movement building, and he takes progressive philanthropists to task for not doing the same. Here’s the key part:

So why is philanthropy so fixated with social entrepreneurs and so uninterested in social movements? A bunch of reasons.

First, most philanthropists and foundations are ideologically centrist and temperamentally conservative. They just aren’t so comfortable backing social movements, which take strong stands and work to create a ruckus.

Second, the new philanthropists coming on the scene, often from business, may be too optimistic about the role that specific innovations can play in solving social and economic problems. While such innovations can be a huge game changer in the spheres of technology, medicine, media, and finance, the complex social or economic problems that society confronts are often too entrenched to be affected by discrete breathroughs. Rather, change in these arenas require deeper shifts in norms and consciousness, the kind of shifts that often only social movements can bring about.

Third, many of the big liberal foundations that you’d imagine would back social movements often think about change in a technocratic way—as opposed to focusing on influencing underlying values. That mindset can be traced back to the pragmatism of the early Progressive tradition, and much has been written on its influence over modern liberal philanthropy—which has an excessive faith in evidence and rational problem solving.

(Full post here.)

Callahan is quick to point out that this it’s not an “either/or” choice. We need both movements and entrepreneurs.

Where I would differ is to say that’s actually an issue of “yes/and”—i.e. funding specific interventions or approaches can be done as part of a movement. For example, there’s unquestionably a school reform movement in the United States, and the organizations spearheading it are the very ones who are executing it: charter school networks, Teach for America, and host of education-related enterprises. The fact that Bill Gates acknowledges a lack of dramatic change is no strike against education reform qua movement. Most movements fail to make dramatic change, until suddenly they do.

In my mind, the question of “movements v. entrepreneurs” is mostly about two things:

  • Aggregation: Are funders and other support systems increasing the likelihood that many social enterprises together form a movement? The narrative of the transformative power of a single intervention doesn’t help, nor do funding competitions and prizes that discourage cooperation, nor does a focus on the entrepreneur (rather than the enterprise) which brings in many aspects of ego that run counter to movement building.
  • Risk: Movement funding is unpredictable. It’s hard to measure its impacts, and hard to attribute successes. This puts it on uneasy footing in a sector that’s increasingly focused on greater accountability and metrics.

Underlying both of these is a tendency toward the apolitical. The technocratic approach to social change doesn’t recognize the importance of politics. Other philanthropists may simply be institutionally afraid of politics, either for legal and tax status reasons, or because of the potential ramifications for corporate donor brands. Entrepreneurship is comparatively safe. It’s sanitized, yet still hype-worthy in a way that makes everyone involved feel good.

Similar dynamics play out at the global level as well. Donors like USAID and others struggle to understand what mass movements (such as the Arab Spring, the Color Revolutions of the 2000s, or going back to the Philippine’s People Power revolution in the 1980s) mean for their goals and work. Politics is also a factor here, made trickier by national boundaries. So funding tends to flow to large implementation projects or targeted interventions, but not movements.

That’s a larger topic, though, potentially for another day. If you’re interested, I’d recommend a recent book: Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? (edited by Mathew Burrows and Maria Stephan).

Photo: People’s Climate March in New York; September 19, 2014.