The trouble with transformation creep

Michele Fugiel Gartner and Daniel Overall

The mantra for transformative change has become ubiquitous. After all, who would opt for treating symptoms, often derisively labelled as applying band-aids, rather than striving for a cure?

While the clarion call of transformation also beckons for us, we’re concerned by a dynamic emerging between individuals taking community action because they saw a ‘simple’ need (kids need shoes, women’s shelters need soup) and the analysis of those actions by those who call for transformative change. Whether these interventions come through the lens of philanthropy, humanitarianism or economic development, and regardless of whether they are individual actions or actions taken by organizations, we risk losing much by judging all social initiatives against the standard of transformation.

Handing out shoes or soup are great examples of this. In recent years, articles have emerged on the flaws of these efforts to solve poverty. But what if they didn’t set out to solve poverty? What if they simply meant to address hunger or put shoes on feet facing the risk of cuts, infections or unsanitary conditions?

The problem goes beyond denying the intrinsic value of such efforts. What we may lose in the process is the spirit of giving and community engagement – and with it the social capital that the ‘transformers’ say is so crucial for systemic change. Perhaps we are striving for transformation without realizing where the seeds of transformation lie? Could we have anticipated that a soup kitchen would inspire First Book, an amazing social impact organization? Yet that is exactly what happened. Kyle Zimmer was volunteering regularly at a soup kitchen in Washington DC. Realizing that the kids she was working with had no books to call their own, she set out with some friends to remedy the situation and, ultimately, First Book was born.

For us, this issue becomes specifically relevant when we fund local non-profits that are seeking to start social enterprise activity. Their business plan for a café or a thrift shop may not seem transformative on the surface, but if it is dismissed out of hand, what nuggets of transformative process developed or population served will we miss? In 2004, would our lens of transformation have been able to identify the potential of a young man tutoring his cousin in mathematics via YouTube? Ten years later, this young man is having an impact on 10 million students a month through Khan Academy.

At a recent conference on measuring impact, an attendee expressed frustration. His organization offers new clothes and showers to the poor to help them with their job interviews. While the uptake of his services was good, funders were now asking him to assess the dent his efforts were making in the transformative change of eliminating poverty. Imagine the shift in the dialogue if the funder was not asking if the programme was helping to solve poverty, but rather using it as an opportunity to gain insights on how to end poverty?

For example, maybe his people didn’t get jobs not due to lack of clothes or showers, but because they had bad teeth, needed a car, or required the ability to wash the new clothes. These could be profoundly valuable insights – not to judge the programme, but to pursue transformative change. Those who provide services rather than transformative change are the doorways to a wealth of transformative data, but due to the current friction between the factions they rarely talk to each other in this way.

By misunderstanding the value of band-aids, we are missing out on waves of data that could be crucial to transformation. Transformation creep is insidious. In receiving grant requests, we have to fight off the urge to judge organizations from a systems-changing lens as opposed to looking at their goals and asking whether they are meeting a legitimate need. The ultimate tragedy is that if we were listening, asking questions and truly understanding these acts of philanthropy, we could apply systems change in a healthy manner. We could have our cake and eat it too. Talk about transformation!

This whole dynamic has given us pause – shouldn’t we be encouraging people to engage in their community, to practise philanthropy, and to test our methods for ways of connecting human to human? If not kept in check, or talked about, ‘the transformers’ have the ability to squash countless efforts of innovation and experiments in social change.

Michele Fugiel Gartner is director, Strategic Investments & Operations, at the Trico Charitable Foundation and Daniel Overall is director, Collaboration & Innovation. Emails and

Lead image caption: The inspiration for First Book came from the experience of volunteering at a soup kitchen

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