Is Too Much Funding Going to Social Entrepreneurs—And Too Little to Social Movements?

Are social movements more effective at bringing about large-scale change than social entrepreneurs? And if they are, why are so many funders excited about the latter compared to the former? 

That's a question worth pondering amid today's news that yet another global effort has been launched to identify individuals with "disruptive and scalable ideas with the potential to change the world." This effort, called the Change the World Social Entrepreneurs Competition, is being spearheaded by Forbes with help from a number of foundations. It will award $1 million in cash prizes.

Meanwhile, according to some research, philanthropic support for more traditional social activists and movement building efforts has been in decline for years.  

Before digging into the big issues here, let's start with a quiz: Can you name five social entrepreneurs who've shifted the direction of American life in the past five years? 

I know, this is tricky, because various definitions of "social entrepreneurs" exist. But let's go with a broad one, from Ashoka, which says they are individuals "with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change."

Okay, now back to the question: Who are some of the people who fit this description who've orchestrated significant change in the United States in recent years?


While I can think of a number of social entrepreneurs who've come up with innovative ways to solve specific problemslike, say, helping more low-income people get business loans or putting more solar panels on homesI can't think of any who've lately been instrumental in spearheading larger-scale change. You know, the kind of change that affects millions of people and makes the front page of the New York Times

On the other hand, though, I can think of five social movements that have been quite successful in steering U.S. society in a new direction since 2010.

First and foremost, of course, is the Tea Party. This decentralized populist movementassociated with no single leaderhas had a profound impact on public policy. Arguably, it can claim credit for significant federal budget cuts that are now impacting millions of lives, from research scientists to food stamp recipients. And while this movement didn't stop Obamacare, it's probably the reason that a key provision of the ACA, Medicaid expansion, has still not been enacted in many states, leaving millions of poor people without health insurance. The Tea Party may also be able to claim credit for torpedoing immigration reform, with a huge ramifications for many people's daily lives. 

Second on the list is Occupy Wall Street, another social movement led by no single person. While it's easy to scoff at this movement, there's little doubt that it helped put economic inequality high on the national agenda (where it remains) and frame the 2012 election, which should have been a close race, to Mitt Romney's disadvantage. 

Third is the push for LGBT rights. This social movement isn't new, but it gained enough new force in recent years to win marriage equality. A number of entrepreneurial individuals played a key role in the movementlike Evan Wolfson and Tim Gillbut they'd be the first to say this was a collective effort, one that succeeded because it changed the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. 

Fourth, and most recent, is Black Lives Matter, another decentralized movement, and one that has forced a new examination of policing and criminal justice policies, along with a broader conversation about racial inequity. This story is still unfolding, but it seems likely this movement will be able to claim some of the credit if bipartisan criminal justice reform passes congress. Already, it's arguably helped instigate some smaller local reforms. 

Fifth, I'd add to the list the new labor movement, which has arisen in the past year or so, as low-income workers at fast food restaurants and retail outlets have organized for higher wages. This movement's victories, so far, include moves by Walmart and Target to increase pay, as well as the new $15 minimum wage enacted by Los Angeles. The movement can also claim some credit, I'd say, for the new overtime rule that the Obama administration is proposing, and which could raise wages for 6 million workers. 

Overall, this is quite a record of changes brought about social movements over the past five yearswhether you agree with the outcomes or not.

But where's philanthropy been in these stories? Well, with the exception of the LGBT case and, to a lesser extent, the new labor movement, it's been a pretty minor player. That's because most funders don't invest in social activists and movement building. Instead, they tend to focus on solving specific problemsa mindset that has lately reached a new apogee with the fast rise of funding for social entrepreneurs. 

There are exceptions, of course. On the left, the Ford Foundation stands out as a funder of movements, and a host of smaller progressive funderslike the Compton, Bauman, and the Public Welfare foundationsalso invest in movement building. 

On the right, many of the top funderslike the Kochs, Sarah Scaife, and Bradleytotally get how important movement building is, and have bankrolled a range of anchor institutions over recent decades to nurture the ideas, leaders, media, and activists needed to power the conservative and libertarian movements. Some of those institutions have played a key role since 2010 in translating Tea Party anger into policy change. 

Otherwise, though, it's fair to say that the mainstream of U.S. philanthropy isn't much interested in helping build social movements, despite the track record of these movements in orchestrating large-scale change. And, in recent years, philanthropy has become even more focused on solving discrete problems in a technocratic way. To be sure, this strategy also has a long track record of changing lives, but often to a much smaller degree, despite all the talk of "systemic change." 

Charter schools are a prime example. Regardless of what you think about them, this model has yet to scale or exert decisive influence through market competition. Indeed, as we've reported, huge philanthropic investments in the ed reform complex overall—which includes charters, Teach for America, and many other ventures piloted by social entrepreneurs—haven't yet made much dent in the lives of millions of school children. Even Bill Gates has admitted as much. “There’s no dramatic change,” he recently told Nicholas Kristof, in assessing years of philanthropic giving to change K-12 education. 

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 huge game changers 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 requires deeper shifts in norms and consciousness, the kinds 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. (See, for example, James Smith's book, The Idea Brokers.)

Whatever the case, it seems pretty clear that funders need to strike a better balance between backing social entrepreneurs and backing social movements if they really want to "change the world." 

Just to be clear, this isn't an either/or choice. We do need more social entrepreneurs, and it's great that so many funders like Jeff Skoll or the Cases have stepped forward to support them, including through the most recent competition sponsored by Forbes. As well, social entrepreneurs often can and do work in conjunction with social movements.

Ultimately, though, philanthropy needs to get a lot better at shaping the gut-level values and beliefs that so often drive human behavior.