Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3

(Part of a continuing series)

#3: “We can move the needle.”

I help foundations develop theories of change – being clear about how what they do makes a difference in the world. What I try to remind them of, and I need to get better at doing this, is what can you really do as a funder with a $6 million – or even $60 million annual grantmaking budget?

  • You work in education? The annual budget of the Fargo, North Dakota school district was $124 million in 2011-12.
  • You work in health? The Biloxi Regional Medical Center paid more than $48 million in wages and benefits in 2011.
  • You work on the environment? ExxonMobil spent $12.9 million on lobbying in 2013.

So what are we talking about here?

Let’s say you want to improve the unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metro area. To move it even one-tenth of a percent, you’d have to help 1,000 people find jobs in a month, which is how often the “needle” is measured.

What is this needle, how are we moving it, and how do we know it stays moved? You have to adjust unemployment statistics for seasonal trends – a lot of people get temporary retail jobs around the holidays, more farmhands are hired at harvest time, kids in school get summer jobs. The change you achieve may get swamped.

So unless you’re changing the rules by which a system operates – which takes gaining political power, mobilizing a base to demand for change, or developing an alternative philosophy and doing the hard, generation-long work of making it the new status go – your signal is likely to get drowned out by a lot of noise.

Or you can go really specific and really small. A neighborhood? That you might be able to change? A city? Come on now.

Our theories of change need to be about movements, about narratives, about systems, if we’re going to live up to the ambition that so many foundation staffs and boards rightly entertain.

Why would you want to move a needle anyway? Better to move the whole haystack.

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One Response to “Zombie philanthropic ideas that won’t die #3”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Baby Come Back Says:

    […] particularly important when you put data in their proper social context. As I’ve continually railed, the concept of “moving the needle” in philanthropy is inherently problematic. The […]

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