Large-Scale Social Impact Requires Decades-Long Effort, Study Finds

Large-Scale Social Impact Requires Decades-Long Effort, Study Finds

Large-scale social change requires significant philanthropic support, collaboration, and policy engagement over many decades, a new report from the Bridgespan Group finds.

Published in the Harvard Business Review, the report, Audacious Philanthropy: Lessons From 15 World-Changing Initiatives, analyzed catalytic social movements and interventions from the twentieth century, including the anti-apartheid and marriage equality movements, the creation of Sesame Street and the school lunch program, tobacco control efforts, and polio eradication, and found that nearly 90 percent of the efforts needed more than twenty years to achieve significant and widespread results, with a median of forty-five years. The report also found that 80 percent of these successes involved changes to government funding flows, policies, or actions, while nearly 75 percent involved active coordination among key actors and roughly 66 percent featured one or more philanthropic investments of at least $10 million.

Many of the successful strategies in the case studies run counter to prevailing funding practices today, the report notes, involving as they do persistent efforts over decades, even when the pace of change feels slow; financial support for collaboration among key actors, even when it means giving up control; sustained engagement with governments, even in uncertain times; and big philanthropic bets that shift power from the donor to NGO leaders, service providers, activists, and beneficiaries.

To provide a framework for twenty-first-century philanthropists pursuing large-scale social change, the report highlights five elements of success, including building a shared understanding of the problem and its ecosystem; establishing "winnable milestones" and honing a compelling message; designing approaches that will work at scale; driving (rather than assuming) demand; and embracing course corrections when an effort is not working.

"Philanthropists often aim to achieve large-scale, extraordinary impact," said Susan Wolf Ditkoff, who co-authored the study. "Yet newer philanthropists can experience frustration if their efforts don’t produce the desired results within a relatively short timeframe, which can cause them to retreat into seemingly safer, less ambitious grantmaking. In reality, it takes sustained attention over decades to win large-scale, landmark victories, and these historic success stories provide lessons on how to do it."