Saving the Babies: A Clash of Philanthropic Approaches

Social service vs. social change

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Here’s a big dilemma for society:  Do we use our charitable resources to save drowning babies one at a time, or do we look upstream for the causes and invest in solutions? Or both.  Do we want social service or social change? Or both. This parable is useful for guiding thought and discussion of the merits of these two very different strategies of useful philanthropy.  

Effective Philanthropy: Your grantmaking guidelines reflect your Board’s choice of philanthropic strategy, whether you meant them to or not.  How well the institution’s actual practices align with your preferences is an open question.

Nonprofit Management: 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?

Community Development: 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.

Program Evaluation: 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.


DOWNLOAD THIS SHORT BUT FASCINATING PUBLICATION HERE – 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