Once upon a time, the leaders of social change organizations focused on efficiency and sound programs as selling points. But today, that emphasis is shifting rapidly to collaboration, proven impact, and yes, donor-centric strategies like big bets.
In this modernistic mix, social change organizations will be challenged to think bigger, build capacity, co-create and provide compelling cases that support the approach.
Big bets (or multimillion-dollar philanthropic investments) are trending. Donors with deep pockets and large foundations are actively looking for suitable mates for their very attractive investment capital.
A few weeks ago, a tweet from Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, sought big ideas to help the world in the short term and it sent nonprofits of all budgets into a mission-pitching frenzy.
But right now it feels like a zero-sum game.
And the winners are mostly large, big-budget nonprofits with household names like The Salvation Army, Special Olympics, Feeding America, and Conservation International. These organizations have proven track records of large grants, which makes donors more comfortable writing even bigger checks.
So where does this leave smaller social change organizations? Can they access big bet opportunities on a lesser scale? If so, how?
Think Bigger. Build Capacity.
According to Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in a piece for Stanford Social Innovation Review, “big bet philanthropy is more of a sensibility than a defined technique.”
This novel trend is a welcome injection of hope and excitement for many a social change leader.
But after decades of underwhelming funding opportunities, shrinking resources, and accelerated disruption, many nonprofits no longer allow themselves to dream big about what they might achieve.
With the average grant size still hovering around $4,000, many nonprofits are unprepared and wouldn’t know what to do with an unrestricted grant equal to half of their annual budget let alone a seven-figure check.
First, figure that out.
Big bets or not, in today’s environment, all social change leaders must be prepared to answer this question:
Small thinking, thrift, and efficiency are not going to work here. Leaders and boards must ask themselves:
What might be possible that is not possible now?
Once leaders have a plan, they must be sure they have the capacity to absorb and effectively use larger investments … and then work to attract the biggish bettors.
Many of today’s generation of philanthropists are driven by two things:
- Making a significant impact on a cause they care about
- Prompt public recognition and lavish praise for their insightful generosity
The latter is one of the reasons the big bet mentality draws criticism, as most colossal problems our society faces are extremely complex and cannot be solved with one mighty investment and copious marketing.
That said, for nonprofits and eager funders to give up a piece of the big bet action is to leave money on the table — and that would be unacceptable.
Therefore, when strategizing biggish bet approaches, set dollars aside for marketing and PR, and don’t ignore the motivation behind the gift.
Design investment opportunities with clear outcomes and the donor in mind. Not unlike the seven-figure big bet approach, this requires social change leaders to create experimental (yet mission-aligned) ideas with plenty of room for donor customization.
To better illustrate:
Think of construction in a trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood. In order to attract home buyers, builders often create a “vanilla box.” They lay the foundation, minimally finish the interior, usually with ceilings, lighting, plumbing, heating, etc., but they leave the finishing-touch decisions (tiles, flooring, appliances, paint color) to the prospective buyer.
The builder sets the vision but the buyer makes it come to life in a personal way.
If nonprofits want to land biggish bets, they need to be prepared to take the “vanilla box” approach and co-create investment projects with donors.
Create a Value Proposition for Donors
Co-creation is not enough.
To truly attract transformational capital, social change leaders must be ready and able to amp up marketing before, during, and after these projects.
They must take what Stanford Social Innovation Review calls a “but for” rationale, described in their Making Big Bets for Social Change feature last winter: “But for your gift, we could not do this.”Donors want a sense of their own value. They want to see themselves as the unique solution. Click To Tweet
If your biggish bet idea is one that might happen anyway, it will feel less special, less personal to the donor.
Have a plan
In the digital economy of the information age, the leaders of social change organizations face myriad sets of new and mounting pressures, but the opportunity to attract transformational capital has never been greater.
Leaders of social change organizations with smaller budgets need not be left behind.
By being prepared with a compelling, mission-aligned plan for how large investments will be utilized and a flexible, donor-centric approach for implementation and marketing, leaders will be better positioned to attract biggish bets.
Tell me about your journey with biggish bets.