Designs Stock/shutterstock

Designs Stock/shutterstock

In 2015, the Bridgespan Group made waves with its research on “Big Bets,” which found that between 2000 to 2012, only 20 percent of gifts of $10 million or more funded issues related to social change. It wasn’t so much the numbers that were striking, but the explanation behind those numbers. Bridgespan argued that ultra-wealthy donors weren’t purposely eschewing social change giving. Rather, the problem was that the structural mechanisms to facilitate such giving weren’t in place. In other words, wealthy donors wanted to give toward social change as much or more as they give to universities, hospitals and museums; they simply lacked a practical means of doing so. 

That was four years ago, and little has changed, despite Bridgespan’s best efforts to encourage new big bets. In fact, according to another study by the consulting firm published last November, giving by the rich overall—whatever the cause—is depressingly low. That report, “Four Pathways to Greater Giving,” offered up the stark finding that in 2017, ultra-wealthy U.S. families donated just 1.2 percent of their assets to charity. This, despite the fact that some of these same families are signatories of the Giving Pledge.

For four years now, with its reports and other activities, Bridgespan has been pushing to get America’s richest people to give more—and to give more boldly. While the firm is hardly alone in pushing on this front, it’s in a better position than most other cheerleaders of greater giving to have an impact—with its expert staff and its ties to many funders, including some prominent billionaire mega-givers. If anyone can convince wealthy donors to do things differently, it’s a blue-chip philanthropy whisperer like Bridgespan.

So far, though, it’s hard to say what impact Bridgespan has made with its sophisticated effort to shake the money tree. While there’s been an explosion of talk about big bets across the philanthrosphere since 2015, along with some prominent new initiatives on this front like the Audacious Project, there’s not yet much evidence that the super-rich are giving either more overall, or donating in larger chunks to social change nonprofits.

To be sure, it’s still early in the game—philanthropy is a famously slow-moving enterprise, and new ideas take time to propagate fully—but Bridgespan’s experience with its high-profile “big bets” campaign raises questions about what it will ultimately take to shift giving patterns and norms in America’s wealthiest households—or if that’s even possible.

Bridgespan’s Big Bet 

The Bridgespan Group was created in the late 1990s as a nonprofit spinoff of Bain & Company, the global consulting firm. Initially bankrolled by Gates, Hewlett and other foundations, the idea was to bring high-powered advisory and management services to the charitable sector. Today, Bridgespan has offices in three U.S. cities, as well as India and South Africa, and works with a who’s who of nonprofits, foundations and high-net-worth donors “to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need.” It describes itself as “passionate about helping to find solutions to ensure equal opportunity and core human and civil rights.”

Bridgespan’s social change mission explains why it’s been on a crusade to change donor behavior. Even as the firm’s wealthy clients talked about wanting to alleviate poverty and advance social justice, they continued to direct their biggest gifts to higher education, healthcare and cultural institutions.

“What really brought us to this idea of ‘big bets’ was this sense that in our work, we were seeing this disconnect between what donors were hoping to do and looking to do with their philanthropy, and the reality of what was happening on the ground,” said Alison Powell, senior director for philanthropy at Bridgespan. Both donors and nonprofits had been expressing deep frustrations to Powell and her team for years. On the grantee side, organizational leaders felt stymied, not just by the lack of big commitments, said Powell, but also by the challenge of “accessing less restricted long-term capital to fulfill their missions.”

With so many nonprofits doing amazing things, and in need of one key ingredient—money—to expand their operations, and with so many ultra-wealthy donors saying they wanted to give their money away to make real impact, you might think the two would meet naturally, perhaps at a fancy cocktail party somewhere high up in the clouds, and set about changing the world for the better.

But that cocktail party hasn’t happened. And so the natural question arose: What, exactly, was going on? Why the disconnect between donor intent and donor behavior? With its initial research on big bets, Bridgespan set out to answer that question.

Some critics of Big Philanthropy have argued that the reason social change groups are being, well, shortchanged is really no great mystery: The ultra-wealthy don’t want to give to such causes as much as they want to give to elite institutions like Harvard, Memorial Sloan Kettering and the Met. In effect, they’d rather feather their own nests than bankroll work that challenges society’s inequities.

But Bridgespan countered with a different theory. Its research found that the reason social change organizations weren’t securing big bets was because they lacked the structural resources to do so. Leading elite institutions have both the networks and organizational capacity to attract big bets from major donors. A nonprofit focused on, say, reintegrating ex-prisoners into society simply can’t compete in the fundraising arena.

More specifically, Bridgespan argued that the failure of philanthropic giving for social change work reflected the inability of groups in this sector to offer up “shovel-ready” opportunities to donors looking to make major gifts. While it’s easy to give $100 million to a university or a major cultural institution, it’s much harder for donors to identify social change nonprofits that can absorb such gifts.

Blueprints for Bigness

Even as Bridgespan’s hypothesis received some criticism (including in this publication), its staff set out to develop solutions to the problem it had identified. In “Billion Dollar Bets,” it followed up its big bets research by outlining a set of shovel-ready opportunities in such areas as early childhood development, reducing incarceration rates, and improving the performance of social service systems. By presenting donors with detailed blueprints for investing in social change, Bridgespan hoped to address the qualms that held back ultra-wealthy givers from acting on their desire to change the world.

And Bridgespan’s focus hasn’t just been on the donor side. In a recent article titled “Becoming Big Bettable,” three staffers lay out ways that nonprofits can position themselves to attract big bets, offering a formula for exciting donors in several parts. The authors write: “By developing an investment concept with a clear and compelling arrival point, a credible path for getting there, and a well-articulated role for philanthropy, already strong organizations may be able to increase their chances of securing big bets and deploying them with distinctive impact.”

An example is One Acre Fund, a nonprofit that works with thousands of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to eradicate hunger and poverty. Bridgespan has been working with One Acre for nearly five years, helping the organization map out an aggressive strategy to scale for greater impact. Bridgespan helped One Acre articulate its mission, narrow its scope of operations, target a specific population of farmers, and better communicate its message to stakeholders. Over the last five years, One Acre has quadrupled in size, and it’s likely to grow even more, thanks to its selection last year as one of the grantees of the Audacious Project, a TED-based effort to catalyze bigger bets by philanthropists.

“Audacious donors agreed to give us $1 for every $2 in grants we raise from other sources, thereby contributing fully one-third of our grant funding over a five-year period,” Andrew Youn wrote this spring in Stanford Social Innovation Review in an article co-authored with Matthew Forti, managing director of One Acre Fund USA and a Bridgespan alumnus. “Immediately after the Audacious commitment, One Acre Fund grew from four countries to six.”

In a conversation, Youn credited Bridgespan with helping his organization think bigger about scaling. “As a nonprofit organization, it’s not like we ever get to think about what we’re going to do with a big bet; we’re mostly just trying to fill our budget for next year. And so we’re not in the habit of thinking ‘What would you do with a sizable philanthropic gift?’ They’re much more accustomed to that bold level of thinking.”

Youn and Forti’s article explains ways that other organizations can “take intentional steps to become more ‘big bettable.’” They write: “Big bets work. When philanthropists and social change leaders team up to think bigger, they create the potential for transformative change.”

Business as Usual?

The Audacious Project isn’t the only big bets venture that has emerged since Bridgespan embarked on its campaign in 2015. The MacArthur Foundation rolled out its high-profile $100 million grants competition in 2016, and is currently funding a second round. Co-Impact, a pooled fund focused on global development, launched in late 2017 with $500 million in commitments. And last year, we reported on the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy initiative looking to raise $1 billion to support news reporting. We’ve also reported on a number of major gifts and initiatives by top donors looking to change the world—for example, the recent creation of the Earth Alliance by Brian Sheth, Laurene Powell Jobs and Leonardo DiCaprio.

For most social change nonprofits, though, big commitments remain elusive, and universities, cultural organizations and medical centers still receive the majority of gifts $10 million and up. The largest donations in particular go to such institutions, and it remains rare for donors to step up with commitments over $50 million for social change causes—even as the Forbes 400 now sit on a combined net worth of $3 trillion, and the Giving Pledge attracts new signatories every year. As we’ve reported, quite a few Pledgers haven’t significantly expanded their giving since signing—despite growing steadily richer in recent years.

All of this poses the obvious question: What impact has Bridgespan’s crusade for bigger and bolder giving really made?

I put it to Jeff Bradach, the firm’s managing partner and co-founder. Bradach acknowledged that Bridgespan was overly optimistic that its big bets research would unlock bigger chunks of capital. It unlocked some, he said, but not nearly enough. “We could be moving faster,” he said.

Which leads to another question: If Bridgespan’s initial hypothesis was that ultra-wealthy donors aren’t giving to social change initiatives due to a lack of shovel-ready opportunities, and Bridgespan delivered those very opportunities to what was admittedly a muted response, does that mean it needs to reevaluate its hypothesis? After all, the shovel-ready opportunities are there, so why aren’t high-net-worth donors reaching for their checkbooks with greater alacrity?

Bradach said the lackluster response from donors “doesn’t lead us to change the initial hypothesis, but it has made us appreciate the amount of wealth created in the last decade that’s on the sidelines that could come in.” One challenge, he said, is that an ‘‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come” strategy only works for a fraction of donors, and is no silver bullet. He added that cultivating big bets takes time. “It’s not like alumni from elite institutions just give huge bucks to their alma mater,” Bradach said. “They have been engaged for years leading up to that. Dimensions like that evolve over time.”

Bradach also reminded me that the push for more big bets has only been going on for four years, so it’s still the early innings. And he noted that most donors have multiple interests, which means they naturally tend to fragment their giving. Steering donors away from that impulse and toward making fewer, larger bets is no easy task.

Pathways to Greater Giving

This year’s report, “Four Pathways to Greater Giving,” offered ideas for creating stronger infrastructure to support bolder philanthropy. Its recommendations for connecting wealthy donors with social change nonprofits included the creation of larger aggregated funds, and more ambitiously, a “community foundation for America” that “would offer grantee options that enable donors to give seamlessly to advance economic mobility.”

Building these and other pathways for greater giving will take time. But the good news is that Bridgespan is hardly the only player in the philanthrosphere pushing for such change. Arabella Advisors is another important entity in the consulting and intermediary space that’s been working to connect donors and grantees for greater impact in new ways—even as older organizations working this nexus, like Tides, NEO Philanthropy, and the Proteus Fund look to up their game at a politically charged moment. Meanwhile, a group of community foundation leaders—working through the Community Foundation Opportunity Network—is aiming to recruit deep-pocketed donors to “make a major investment in a bundled portfolio of community foundations across the country that will put the money to use fighting poverty in their respective cities,” as the Chronicle of Philanthropy described it.

Near the end of our conversation, Bradach mentioned a potential negative unintended consequence of the big-bets approach: that it could increase the flow of funds to familiar and well-resourced nonprofits, leading to “the big getting bigger.” After all, who has the capacity to facilitate big bets? It’s organizations that are already established and connected to wealthy donors. “Big bets can create inequities in the system and systematically overlook crucial levers for social change,” said Bradach. “We need to ensure that more organizations led by people of color, and which are closer to the community, get funded.” 

In a sneak peek at an upcoming research report, Bradach told me that Bridgespan is exploring how to expand the circle of nonprofits that are in a position to attract big bets.

Unlocking larger chunks of capital from donors is proving to be a herculean task. By the looks of it, though, Bridgespan isn’t giving up on its crusade anytime soon.

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