Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Chinese student activists stand defiantly in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Pro-life advocates rally under the dome of the US Capitol. When we think of social movements, these are likely the kinds of images that come to mind—not those of well-heeled donors writing very big checks.
So, in late 2015, when Jon Stryker’s Arcus Foundation and Jennifer and Peter Buffett’s Novo Foundation announced a $20 million big bet on the Global Trans Initiative, which aims to improve the lives of transgender people worldwide, some might have wondered: is such an audacious goal achievable? Unlike donations that result in something tangible, like a new museum wing, this gift instead attempted to change pervasive attitudes toward one of society’s most marginalized groups. Does philanthropy really have a useful role to play in transformative social movements?
History says, “yes.” For a recent research project on big bets, which The Bridgespan Group defines as gifts of $10 million or more, we examined a number of recent, successful social movements, such as: in the United States, the rejuvenation of conservatism in the 1970s and 80s, and LGBT rights in the last decade; and, globally, the Green Revolution of the 1940s—60s. More than 70 percent of the social movements we studied received at least one pivotal big bet.
Social movements are commonly set in motion by bold leaders and popular momentum, but may not achieve progress without significant contributions from donor advocates making big bets. Consider the marriage equality movement, which has recently seen unprecedented victories in the United States and abroad. In 2003, as a result of a court ruling, the state of Massachusetts was prepared to allow same-sex marriage, but every other state remained opposed, and public opinion stood firmly against the idea. That same year, the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund gave $2.5 million to attorney and advocate Evan Wolfson to found Freedom to Marry, a national campaign to legalize same-sex marriage. The Haas Fund ultimately contributed $39 million to marriage equality and generated a number of other large donations for the cause. Wolfson has credited this financial support with fueling the state-by-state and then national movement that eventually led to the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation. Elsewhere, from 2003 through 2013, the Atlantic Philanthropies gave $9.3 million to local LGBT rights organizations in Ireland. Their grants helped the groups that were leading and organizing advocacy for LGBT rights, including the marriage equality movement in Ireland (although the foundation’s gifts were not tied to the movement in particular). Atlantic’s funding for those organizations ended in 2013; two years later, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum.
On the other end of the political spectrum, big bets have played a significant role in the conservative movement. While lower-profile than the foundations led by the Koch brothers, Wisconsin’s right-leaning Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has backed public policy experiments that started in Wisconsin and spread across the nation. These include welfare reform, public vouchers for private schools, and, more recently, support for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign to cut public employee benefits and limit collective bargaining.
How can a big bet propel a social movement? Wherever the movement falls on the political spectrum, the answer’s basic elements are remarkably similar:
- Big bets can provide the critical infrastructure required for movements: materials, people, transportation, legal services, research, and more. Movements that seek to change a nation require a lot of infrastructure. And lots of infrastructure costs a lot of money.
- Big bets represent a vote of confidence, especially when the odds against progress are high. When the Haas Fund made its first contributions to the same-sex marriage movement, momentum seemed to be going in the opposite direction, with more and more states amending their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage.
- Big bets offer leaders the time they need to create change. In retrospect, same-sex marriage in the United States looks like a fairly quick victory—fewer than fifteen years have passed since Haas’ initial gift to Evan Wolfson. Other movements, say, the effort to end the death penalty or limit the availability of guns, have been in progress for decades, with no end in sight. Serious financial support can give leaders and movements the staying power to test strategies, wait out unfavorable periods, and seize the moment when the time is finally right.
Arcus and Novo, like many of their predecessors, set an extraordinarily ambitious goal for their big bet: “ensuring that all transgender people live in a world where they are recognized, valued, and supported by their families and in society.” And like many of those who have come before them, they seem fully prepared to stick with it for the long haul in order to realize their high aspirations.
(William Foster is a partner at The Bridgespan Group and head of its consulting practice. He co-authored the study “Big Bets for Social Change,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2016)