In their heart of hearts, philanthropists want to be audacious. We want to unleash significant impact on the issues we care about, recognizing our role and power in unlocking change.
The Audacious Project was featured in the opening session of the Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium in Boston earlier this month. It featured founder Chris Anderson, a curator at TED, and Raj Panjabi, co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health. They spoke about their work scaling global solutions through the $100 million Audacious Project.
Social transformation is not cheap nor is it easy. I agree with Chris that social change requires more capital and there is potential to absorb large amounts of capital. Scaling the resources available to changemakers is exactly the work of Thousand Currents.
During the conversation, Chris mentioned that we can no longer continue to give small amounts of capital to a bunch of small projects. He talked about the importance of having an entrepreneur that is audacious, tells a good story, and is effective and helping that entrepreneur reach scale. If we are truly to achieve impact, he argued that we need to invest large amounts of capital in a small number of projects that are scalable.
Also during the course of the conversation, however, Raj highlighted a research project by the Bridgespan Group on 15 social transformations and how they came about, such as car seats and tobacco control. He offered them as examples of how donors can play an important role. When you look closer at these transformations, however, the majority of them were results of coordinated, collective action such as marriage equality and the anti-apartheid movement. None was a singular effort by a single entity that ‘went to scale.’
In fact, most of the deeply impactful policies and transformation in the US and around the world have come about as a result of collective action. Yes, there were leaders who were public faces, leaders who held and told the story and who inspired others. But most of the changes we enjoy today from movements that fought for civil rights or women’s voting rights or independence from colonial rule had multiple players at multiple levels working towards a shared set of goals.
So is scale about taking one project and blowing it up to unprecedented levels? How can we reimagine scale, especially when we know – as highlighted in Raj’s cited examples – social transformation requires not one idea or leader, but many?
Thousand Currents partners are part of powerful ecosystems of progressive social movements around the world. We’ve learned from our partners that scale can be depth, can be breadth, and it can be influence.
For example, our partner the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance is deeply embedded in its immediate geographic area, taking on policy makers and big corporations to keep their communities safe from hazards due to environmental racism in South Africa. Their ‘scale comes from the results of that depth of knowledge in South Durban, which they are continually invited to share at the national and international levels.
Another partner, Nari Chetana Kendra, or Women Awareness Center Nepal, has built 42 women-owned cooperatives around the country since 1992. Today, their ‘scale’ is seen in the over 45,000 women who are members. They collectively hold over US$4 million in assets, forcing local banks to change their lending practices to include the poorest members of society.
We also see scale through the global influence in our partner, La Via Campesina, which is an international peasant movement fighting to preserve indigenous farming, fishing, grazing, and land use practices that sustain people and the earth. The movement represents over 200 million farmers in over 80 countries. Talk about scale!
In philanthropy, it is difficult to escape an operating economic paradigm where unchecked growth is automatically associated with progress. ‘Going to scale’ is a byproduct of that framework. However, we as Thousand Currents are challenged to think differently about ‘scale’ by our partners. Rising inequality and ongoing extraction and pollution are also part of the current economic model, and are an important reason why our partners do the work they do.
So here’s a question I wasn’t able to ask Chris and Raj at the symposium: How do they reconcile a focus on the individual entrepreneur when history shows us it is movements that advance social change? What is the maximum, effective size for an organization or group going to scale?
What we know is that movement ecosystems, still largely misunderstood in international development circles, offers an opportunity for lasting and impactful responses to our world’s most pressing problems that even the most scalable (under-the-current-definition), project-based funding may never be able to accomplish.
Yes, funders, more resources are needed. And there are movement actors – campaigners, formal and informal groups, policy analysts, civil society organizations, individual citizens, media makers, etc. – out there navigating complex problems, dynamics, and solutions and taking coordinated steps. They may not be ‘exceptional’ entrepreneurs with lots of access to financial resources, but they are ready to absorb them.
Whether you work on women’s rights, or make health information more accessible, or open data for development, it’s important for funders to be humble and realistic about how ‘scale’ happens and how we can best support it.
As Indian gay rights activist Sandip Roy wrote about the appeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last week:
‘This was done by ordinary people who dared to say that change could happen against all odds. This did not happen in two years or five. It happened because young men and women came together in cafes, in parks, in dingy offices…with hope in their hearts.’
In our heart of hearts, everyone wants to be audacious.