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.

  1. David Callahan, Editor, Inside Philanthropy July 24, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Nice points. You do need both, and the key is striking the right balance, and also ensuring there are mechanisms to connect social movements and entrepreneurs. More funders need to focus on backing those intersections. – David Callahan


  2. Thanks, a very interesting analysis, and I agree that there is a bit of an allergy to appearing to get into political issues.

    I wonder whether in addition to a push for technocratic and “safe” solutions, donors prefer to play the essential role (or fund the single, transformative innovation) rather than be part of a larger group of supporters of a bigger but more meaningful change. For example, I can imagine a donor wanting to fund the refinement and sharing of the new approach to political campaigning in micro-neighborhoods pioneered by the Obama campaign in 2008, but find it harder to imagine them funding the application of that approach to a relevant issue (e.g. supporting a campaign for clean water making use of that approach), even though both are political. Part of the push toward a technocratic view, in my view, is the desire to leave a mark or at least to offer a value-added beyond funding by funding only those solutions that change everything – rather than funding the diffusion and use of such solutions in general. It’s less sexy to matter as a platform and anchor than to matter as a thought leader and creative pioneer, at least in the incentives of a lot of philanthropists and donors.


  3. Holly Delany Cole August 5, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    This is a good, additional analysis of why the support of individual social ‘entrepreneurs’ has default support by philanthropy over the funding of social movements. To the various reasons offered, I would add one – related to the others – which is that philanthropic leaders are influenced by their own experience of achievement. Many easily identify with the idea of the exceptional individual(s) who bring unique capacities to ‘solve’ problems and are worthy of investment to bring their ideas and energy to scale. This is their experience of who makes change and how change happens. They personally identify with that frame.

    I am certain that few of the philanthropists on the scene today have personal or near-in experience with advancing social movements themselves. Nor are many themselves members of a community of shared struggle or individuals who are negatively affected by systemic and structural inequities. They don’t see social movement as necessary to make change because they can’t identify with the idea or understand its necessity. They believe instead that the pathway to progressive change — or change of any type — is to support really smart individuals who have the right idea (in their view). Individual effort is how they made it, after all.

    There are some initiatives that do both — support energetic, visionary leaders and nurture social movements simultaneously. JustLeadership USA founded by Glenn Martin is one such effort. It identifies individuals with direct experience in the criminal justice system and provides them with a program of professional development aimed at strengthening their ability to develop strategy, broaden relevant networks, communicate effectively and become more effective advocates. This happens through one on one group and individual training, peer engagement, and on-going coaching and mentoring, It grows individuals who help knit and lead the social movement about decarceration.

    Thanks for this conversation. Nice to see it discussed.


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