Saving the Babies: A Clash of Philanthropic Approaches

Social service vs. social change

thumbnail of ECP_SavingBabies

This parable is useful for illustrating a key dilemma in philanthropy: Do we use our charitable resources to save drowning babies one at a time, or do we look upstream for the causes of casualties and invest in solutions? Or both.  This parable is useful for guiding thought and discussion of the merits of two very different forms of useful philanthropy, support for “social service” and support for “social change.”   It’s about framing choices, and its useful and disruptive consequences.

For Grantmakers: Your grantmaking guidelines reflect your Board’s choice of philanthropic strategy, whether intentional or not.  How well the institution’s actual practices align with these preferences is an open question, as is how well the whole enterprise is working.

For Nonprofits: Where, for you as a nonprofit, is the action? At the riverbank fishing out lost babies one-at-a-time? Or upstream making the shoreline safer?  To put it differently, do your programs put buckets under drips of the leaking roof, or are you up on the roof fixing the shingles?

For Activists: Activists, including donors making choices about what to support, will be drawn to one side of this debate more than the other, just out of personal preference.  Knowing which you prefer allows you to read nonprofits’ newsletters and websites more smartly.

For Evaluators: If the program wants to save children one at a time, evaluate for that.  If it wants to promote plausible policy that stand to save many children at once, evaluate for that.


Saving the Babies: A Clash of Philanthropic Approaches (pdf)

Originally titled, “Saving the Babies: Looking Upstream for Solutions,” 2003.

Originally appeared: Website of the Effective Communities Project

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

Effective Communities Project

Minneapolis, MN