Becoming Big Bettable

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Louis Slade, MPhil in Development Studies at the Department of International Development, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Becoming Big Bettable’.

Image of the screen slide in the session

The description for William Foster and Sridhar Prasad’s session on “Becoming Big Bettable” is perhaps a little misleading. They suggest that their “interactive workshop will share emerging research and help you refine a core investment thesis to increase your organization’s odds of being viewed by donors as big-bettable.” The session, however, led by these two experts from The Bridgespan Group, was less to do with the strategies a social impact organization can use to convince a foundation to provide them with a gift greater than $10 million, and more to do with defining the characteristics of an organization that will have a high social impact. In this sense their argument for how to become “big bettable” is all about designing an organization that effectively addresses the root cause of a problem in a measurable and enduring way.

Foster and Prasad define a “big bet” as a significant philanthropic donation with the ability to catalyse meaningful change for organizations and social movements. While annually gifts of $10 million from philanthropies can reach a total of $8 billion, only 20% of this money goes to organizations working to achieve social change—such as ending malaria or childhood obesity—and 80% is given to established socially valuable institutions such as hospitals, universities, and art galleries. Oddly though, most of these philanthropies publicly state that they would prefer to be spending their money on activities that are making a significant difference in people’s lives, as opposed to simply sustaining the institutions that already exist. There is thus an aspiration gap between where philanthropies would like to spend their money and where they are actually spending their money.

Bridgespan, whose stated mission is to “build a better world by strengthening the ability of mission-driven organizations and philanthropists to achieve breakthrough results in addressing society’s most important challenges and opportunities,” has thus dedicated the last few years to understanding what leads philanthropists/philanthropic organisations to make a big bet in organizations pursuing social change.

Foster and Prasad’s answer, however, has nothing to do with pushing these philanthropies to take on more risk by giving to social impact organizations. Rather, their strategy is all about helping social impact organizations become more effective and, therefore, more deserving of receiving a significant gift. In this sense, Prasad explained that Bridgespan “helps people do good things better.”

Bridgespan’s main achievement in this field has, therefore, been identifying the three weaknesses that many social enterprises face when it comes to how they go about addressing problems.

The first is defining their “point of arrival.” Many social entrepreneurs can speak passionately at length about the importance of addressing a particular problem but fail to clearly identify what they actually hope to change and what they genuinely believe they can achieve. It is one thing to make the case that child mortality needs to be reduced, it is another to explicitly identify how many lives an organization expects to save with its proposed intervention and how long that solution will last. Social entrepreneurs, therefore, need be able to identify a specific goal and secure an enduring impact.

The second weakness is outlining a credible path to reach the point of arrival. A social entrepreneur might have designed an incredible tool to improve education outcomes for poor children in rural areas but unless they have a believable method for distributing that tool to thousands of schools, ensuring it is used appropriately, and measuring the outcomes, they are unlikely to have a significant impact. 

The third weakness is identifying why philanthropy is the missing ingredient. A social enterprise needs to have a serious understanding of what they can do with a cash-injection of more than $10 million dollars that will contribute to enduring change.

What emerged from this session was a realization that if an organization is going to “become big bettable” it is not about nailing the pitch, building the right networks, or being lucky (although all those things are important), it is about creating an enduring solution to a problem.

Further Reading:

SSIR: Making Big Bets for Social Change

Forbes: Big Bet Philanthropy’s Most Promising Social Change Gifts Last Year