The Structure of Philanthropic Revolutions

February 8, 2010

This is the first in a series of explorations into the shifting paradigm that shapes our understanding of philanthropy.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn famously described the way in which a prevailing way of thinking about how the world works—a paradigm—determines the way scientists conduct their research. This paradigm frames the questions scientists ask, determines the experiments they conduct, and shapes the meaning they attribute to their results. At any given time, there is considerable evidence that the paradigm is partly or even largely wrong, but it is never abandoned until a new paradigm is introduced and gains broad acceptance, a rare event in the history of science that Kuhn termed a “paradigm shift.”
 
I believe that something similar is at work in philanthropy, and that we are now undergoing a paradigm shift in which the existing paradigm, riddled with anomolies, still lingers because a new one has not yet fully taken hold.
 
The paradigm that has and largely continues to prevail separates charity, in which ordinary donors give money to nonprofits to alleviate suffering, from philanthropy, in which major foundations act as the R&D arm of society, testing new ways of solving social problems. It casts foundations as quasi-academic institutions with different departments or program areas that, as within a university, focus on separate fields. It encourages foundations to fund new ideas through seed grants and pilot projects as if in a laboratory. Evaluation is cast as the proof point, charged with demonstrating that a particular intervention solved a social problem, so that government or other funders might replicate it.
 
This paradigm was shaped by the great early foundations of Carnegie and Rockefeller, and it grew from the momentum of those times when the scientific and industrial revolutions gave an impression of unlimited progress in our understanding and control of the world. For the first time, poverty and disease, long seen as inevitable to the human condition, might actually be cured through the advances of science and modern management theory. And foundations were the ones with the freedom, wisdom, and resources find those cures, often led by the very men who had shaped the greatest examples of commercial and scientific progress. It remains a compelling vision.
 
Of course the worldview on which this paradigm was based has changed radically over the last century. We no longer see scientific and industrial progress as all for the good, nor are we so confident in the wisdom of those who lead industry and government. What appeared to be progress in the past now seems fraught with terrible unintended consequences.  We have lost our certainty that future generations will necessarily live in better conditions than we do today.
 
At the same time, we have come to understand more about the complexity of social problems and the limitations of the scientific method. A vast social sector of nonprofit organizations and foundations has emerged on a scale Carnegie and Rockefeller could scarcely have imagined, creating an ecosystem that raises and spends nearly a trillion dollars a year. It seems almost quaint in today’s world to think that any single intervention or organization can “solve” poverty, or that there is a cure for failing schools that only needs to be discovered, in the way that medical cures are discovered in laboratories. Even when solutions are known, we are no longer confident that government is willing to adopt them or able to execute them effectively.
 
And in more recent years, the Internet has shown us the power of individual action on a global scale—a way of constructing solutions and building knowledge that largely bypasses major institutions and governments. We have even come to doubt the linear model on which so many theories of change are based—in which an actor is able to cause a specific social change to occur through a series of steps that he or she can foresee and control. Instead, solutions bubble up unanticipated, crowdsourced, or through the work of an inspired individual whose idea reaches millions of people in a day, without any funding or institutional base.
 
How have foundations adapted to this new worldview? Has a new paradigm emerged, or are we still struggling to work under a paradigm that is no longer realistic?

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